The Ballad of Dood & Juanita Is Outlaw Country Star’s Most Dignified Album
Sturgill Simpson is one of modern music’s most inventive musicians. After he knocked out the world with his 2013 solo debut High Top Mountain — an inventive outlaw country record that’s drawn numerous (and accurate) comparisons to the spirit of Waylon Jennings — the 43-year-old has gone on to establish himself as an oddball, taking each new project he releases down unexpected paths.
He followed up that excellent opener with 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, a sprawling and psychedelic exploration of the history of the genre; and then later, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an equally introspective and hallucienary record that explored the concept of… exploration. At only three albums into his young career in the spotlight, he’d already been deemed a savior of the genre, someone who could provide a shining light forward in a world that’s seemingly forgotten about cowboys.
Then, he stopped. Or at least he said he was gonna stop. Notoriously press shy, Simpson gave a couple of interviews explaining that he needed to step away from the limelight, something he never really wanted in the first place, in order to spend time with his family and focus on his personal life. Always open about his struggles with mental health and substance abuse, this wasn’t much of a surprise. But that break didn’t last long. By the time 2017 rolled around, he was touring again, and then told an interviewer in 2018 that he was working on new music. Fast forward to 2019 and Simpson released an album called Sound & Fury, another extreme left turn. With that project (and the anime film [yes, anime film] he created alongside it), he embraced the psychotic nature of arena rock, his own personal interpretation of guitars that sound like they’re on fire. Just look at the album cover: It’s a really freakin’ cool muscle car peeling out behind some explosions, driving into a bigger explosion. Rock ‘n’ roll, baby!
As the COVID-19 lockdown happened and the world looked inward, so did ol’ Sturg. His time in quarantine produced two bluegrass albums (a bit different from the flying explosions he’d just been riding): Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Both sound phenomenal and absolutely nothing like anything he’d recorded previously. They buck the trappings of traditional bluegrass; picture an old man in overalls with a long white beard, piece of hay hanging out of his mouth, and holding onto a crappy little banjo. Instead, on the cover of both, we see Simpson wearing aviators and a pair of Vans while riding a lawnmower. The music reflects this attitude. A workingman’s bluegrass. The only other thing he could use to make the cover more apt is a Shiner Bock in his hand.
The history of Simpson’s career until this point is important to understand in order to fully grasp the scope of his art and how he’s continually experimenting — and what that approach can overall accomplish. The subtle chameleon nature of his artistry is one that allows him to successfully walk in so many different spaces while remaining steady and true to his own self. This approach is not an easy task, despite how easy Simpson, with his deeply humble everyman persona, makes it look and sound. If he dyed his hair pink, his imaginative artistry might get a bit more attention. But then Sturgill wouldn’t Sturgill. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
All of this brings us to his latest project, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, which, you guessed it, is another left turn. The project — which he wrote and recorded in less than a week’s time — is a concept album that takes place during the Civil War. To make things a bit more dramatic, he’s already told Rolling Stone that it will be the last album released under the name Sturgill Simpson, the final act in a five album arc. If he’s indeed true to his word, he’s picked a record that’s quite the closer.
The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is an elegant demonstration of the joy of storytelling and how the myths of the American frontier are still rich with opportunity. Simpson maintains his bluegrass exploration, and through it, takes these ideas and twists them around, creating a record that could’ve fallen out of the roaring 1970s outlaw country scene. Yet while doing so it carries the maturity and long view of an experienced student of the genre. This album is not necessarily his best, but it is his most dignified.
The story here is a classic and simple western. In 1862, a half-Shawnee military vet named Dood (the namesake of whom is Simpson’s grandfather) leaves the war and settles down in Kentucky with a woman he loves named Juanita. One day, a bandit named Seamus McClure sneaks onto their property, kidnaps Juanita, and shoots Dood, leaving him to die. Dood does not die, and what follows is a time-honored story of retribution: Dood saddles up on his mule to pursue the outlaw, fueling his pursuit with rage and an incomprehensible desire for vengeance. On “One in the Saddle, One on the Ground,” Simpson sings the following, acting almost as a thesis statement for Dood’s revenge quest:
“Told his son to stay strong
Take care of his sister
Til daddy returned, with mama safe and sound
Then they set out together to go find Juanita
Old Dood in the saddle, and Sam on the ground
Vowing never to stop ’til Juanita was found
A man and his rifle, a mule, and his hound
One in the saddle, one on the ground.”
Along his journey, his dog dies (who Simpson lovingly sings for with “Sam”; “He loved howlin’ at the moon, he loved treein’ that raccoon”) and his mule gets too tired to keep going. Then, just as Dood begins to lose all hope, he’s saved by a band of Cherokees who recognize his native blood, and they coincidentally have information about Juanita and help him find her. Dood and Juanita reunite gloriously and return home. But things aren’t finished yet, because McClure is still out there, alive. Dood sets out to find the bandit and easily tracks him down, shooting him with his rifle from 300 yards away, putting the final nail in the coffin up close with a tomahawk to his forehead. “Moonlight bouncing off that tomahawk was the last thing ol’ Seamus ever saw,” Simpson sings on the final track, “Ol Dood (Part II).” Presumably, Dood and Juanita live happily ever after. Cormac McCarthy would be proud.
The Ballad of Dood & Juanita lives up to the dramatic literary expectations it puts forth. From its rustic cover — a pencil sketch of Dood with his rifle, his trusty mule, and his dog — to the briefness of the music itself (the album clocks in at just under a half hour running time), Simpson’s vision remains clear throughout due to his steadfast self-editing. This is a story of revenge driven by love. There’s not much more to it than that. Through its simplicity, it finds itself sitting rightfully in a long lineage of stories about perseverance. The space in between these moments of pursuit is where Simpson illustrates Dood’s struggle and humanity. This feeling can be found in “Juanita,” one of the record’s high points and for which Willie Nelson guests on guitar. It’s a burst of joy and love, the harmonies flying lovingly over one another: “You are the ocean, I am a grain of sand / In waves of motion, a violent and craven man / But the day that I found you, calm washed over the storm / Sun came up, soft blue eyes, and the moon in oh so long.”
Simpson is a poet, and there’s a stately and literary feeling that The Ballad of Dood & Juanita achieves that is lacking in his other work. His albums have often navigated these different genres with a knowing nod or a wink, a perfect example being the aforementioned muscle car on the cover of Sound & Fury. He gets what he’s doing. He’s bringing you along for the ride. Further, he’s not commenting overtly on the state of the genre like on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, nor sliding a Nirvana cover in the middle of the tracklist like on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Instead, with The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, he’s made a concerted effort to pull any form of cutesiness back, and the result is that Simpson soundly and elegantly walks that difficult line of earnestness. This record is a bold and graceful attempt at great American storytelling — nothing more, nothing less. A man with a guitar singing about a man with a rifle. What more could we want?
Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood & Juanita Track-by-Track Review
It feels a little odd to judge a marching drum beat underneath whistling and chanting, but this song really does get you fired up for something epic.
2. Ol’ Dood (Part I)
This track acts as pure function, a setup of the dramatic story that’s to come. Sturg comes in hot with his powerful voice, and gives us an understanding of what we should expect from the character of Ol’ Dood, and the length to which he’ll go to achieve his goals.
3. One in the Saddle, One on the Ground
Here we have Simpson giving us the lowdown on the life of Dood and Juanita, and the dramatic turn it takes. The refrain of “A man and his rifle, a mule, and his hound, one in the saddle, one on the ground” illustrates the simplicity of the story, and how Dood will be patiently rolling into the big world, tracking down the evil bandit.
God bless an ol’ faithful mule.
5. Played Out
Here’s the point of the story where things start getting a little desperate, and Simpson channels an exhaustion in his voice that helps the listener understand the stakes. This is also one of the moments on the record that feels wider than the story itself. You ever feel beat up after a long day? Sturg understands your struggle. Much of his success as a songwriter comes when he taps into those in-between moments of existence that make us feel human.
Any pet owner will respect this track, a song dedicated to Sam, the “hound of hounds.” RIP, ol’ Sam.
A love song for Juanita, the power that keeps Dood moving forward. It’s a beautiful ballad full of quaint and earnest lines like, “You are the ocean, I am a grain of sand.” We’d chase you down too, Juanita.
8. Go in Peace
Simpson shows his versatility as an artist on “Go in Peace,” an upbeat bluegrass track full of harmonies as Dood rescues Juanita with the help of some Cherokees.
The whistling and marching returns, and after Juanita’s been rescued, the building music makes it clear clear that the inevitable is coming for the bandit.
10. Ol’ Dood (Part II)
To close the record, Simpson returns to his outlaw country self, confident and self-assured, not too dissimilar to Dood as he kills the bandit. Simpson’s understated swag is one of the coolest things about him. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, as the rain fades away.