”If the question is O, Sturgill Simpson where art thou now?” the answer is: still deep in a Kentucky holler, arousing the sounds of his native bluegrass state—as in, the music he grew up with.
”Cuttin' Grass Vol. 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions” is the quick follow-up to “Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions,” and like its predecessor, “Vol. 2” is a bundle of previously released songs stripped down and re-dressed in taproot bluegrass fashions. However it does so with some distinct differences from its slightly older sibling.
This time, the vibe is a bit more footloose and unbuckled, and his seven-piece world-class band, again featuring titans and ringers like Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and Sierra Hull, is given more berth to stretch out and showcase their eminent bluegrass chops.
Purists may discern some violations and deviations from the bluegrass handbook, but those are the point. The intent was not bows and genuflections to the genre's legends and traditions but a sound more Flying Burrito Brothers than Foggy Mountain Boys. The results: an organic vibe that invigorates the melodies and gives his lyrics a sharper focus.
“Oh Sara,” for example, is stripped of its lavish strings, electronic tics and low-pulse percussion and infused with all the hill-music staples: loping lines of fiddle, mandolin and guitar and Simpson's honeyed drawl brushed here and there with lockstep harmonies.
The song selection also seems more organized. There's an overt familial theme here: songs about his wife, “Oh, Sarah”; his grandfather, “Hero”: and his son, “Welcome to Earth, (Pollywog),” which is transformed into a lush, country lullaby that erupts into a boot-stomping string-band hoedown. It is one of several highlights on an album stocked with many.
Simpson saves the album's marquee feature for last: unreleased material that includes “Hobo Cartoon,” a collaboration with fellow bluegrass enthusiast Merle Haggard that transpired during Haggard's final days on earth and has been lying in wait for the right moment. This feels like the perfect one.
No one in the country music universe has been as vocal and adamant as Simpson about their displeasure with all that's going on in Nashville and on Music Row Inc. “Cowboy Sessions” feels like another declaration of defiance and deviance from an artist genuinely indebted to the music's real pioneers and genuine traditions and not the slightest bit beholden to today's fleeting trends, fads or fashions.