The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is traditional without every feeling old-timey, and is more fun and plays to Simpson’s strengths more than his more recent efforts.
The Ballad of Dood and Juanita may or may not go down as the defining Sturgill Simpson album — at this juncture, it’s tough to imagine anything supplanting Metamodern Sounds in Country Music as his quintessential work — but it’s surely the one that does the most with the least. More to the point: It’s the one where Simpson sounds like he’s having the most fun. Following his Cuttin’ Grass sessions, rollicking records where Simpson revisited his back catalog with the help of ace bluegrass pros, Dood brings the same aesthetics (and many of the same players) to a set of all-new originals. Running lickety-split through 28 minutes of high-and-lonesome twang (it’s about 40 seconds longer than Waylon Jennings’ classic Honky Tonk Heroes), the album tells the story of a rugged Kentuckian named Dood who opts out of the Civil War and says no-thanks to the miner’s life, instead setting up a nice little farm and settling into domesticity with his beloved Juanita. When she is abducted by dastardly outlaw Seamus McClure, Dood sets out with rifle, horse, and hound to rescue his wife, and possibly enact some vengeance on the man who snatched her away. It’s an exercise in myth-making that can’t help remind you of The Red-Headed Stranger, and not only because Willie Nelson himself blesses “Juanita” with a glistening nylon-string solo. It’s also a mean feat of storytelling efficiency: In less than half an hour, Simpson gives us backstory, a full narrative arc, and an epilogue, which leaves him just enough room for a song extolling Juanita’s beauty and another proclaiming the faithfulness of Dood’s hound.
Those looking for subtext will be amply rewarded: Make whatever you will of Sturgill’s open-ended use of American archetypes (he’s specific about things like the kind of rifle used, to name just one example) and personal history (Dood and Juanita happen to be the names of his grandparents). At the very least be aware that, while not exactly a revisionist Western, Simpson’s tale does navigate the usual Manifest Destiny issues with more thoughtfulness and complexity than is customary of the form; his Dood is half Shawnee where outlaw Seamus is seemingly just a random white dude, and their ultimate meet-up flips convention in a way that brings Quentin Tarantino to mind. But if Dood feels surprisingly weighty in how it monkeys with our assumptions about masculinity, redemption, and violence, it ultimate lingers in the mind for Simpson’s clear affection for the concrete particulars: His old-time gospel harmonizing about the dog feels wonderfully distinct, as does Dood’s acknowledgement that he has no idea how Juanita got her name. (“There’s no senoritas from the mountains where you came,” he muses.) All these loving nouns are carried by the rush of country and mountain music traditions, played with deftness, leanness, and just the right amount of whimsy from Simpson and his wrecking crew. Traditional without ever feeling self-consciously old-timey, Dood plays to Simpson’s strengths better than some of his more recent sonic excursions, admirable though some of those may have been. It adds up to a hell of a good time: An album that doesn’t overstay its welcome but does pack pleasure into every last second.
Published as part of Album Roundup — August 2021 | Part 3.