Tears from Grass

Sturgill Simpon’s bluegrass record, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions, is finally out! I have an interesting and unique relationship with Sturgill and I felt compelled to write about it. Most of all I want to celebrate the art of this music and, by doing so, maybe someone will connect to it in the same way I have.

I also have little faith the music industry will fully capture the impact of this project. At the very least journalists will write about a guy they know nothing about, and I know more about him than they do. It isn’t my place or intention to speak for Sturgill; I just love him, his family, his friends, his art, and his soul. What an egotistical assumption of how I could add to this discussion! The music and art truly speak for themselves, but I guess it’s therapeutic for me to share.

I met Sturgill at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after I stepped on an IED in Afghanistan during a combat operation. This life changing event happened on my second combat deployment as a Special Forces Medic, a Green Beret. I had dealt with an intense bout of depression after my first deployment and Sturgill’s music was grounding and healing for me. After the injury and in a ketamine haze, I told my mom I wanted to meet him, and then within a few weeks he was in my hospital room.

I’m not sure what could go through someone’s mind when they hear, “There’s this Special Forces guy who is almost dead. He wants to meet you.” It seemed like he didn’t hesitate. And for some reason, we quickly became friends. He has directly and indirectly influenced me through incredibly painful and difficult times. I’ve gone on tour with him and the band twice, I’ve seen him play some of these songs 50 times, and we’ve had many weird, funny, and long conversations. Most importantly, he’s just a fucking DUDE, and he’s my friend. I guess I feel I connect to the music in a different way because of all of this.

If we think in macro terms, Sturgill’s song writing resonates because it’s visceral. It’s real and always an extension of him. Much like an actor can channel the essence of the character they’re playing, music functions in a similar way. It’s my belief that true artists are able to channel or expose their soul through their chosen art. When we can feel this, and when the artists feel it as they create it, it’s an amazing experience.

The musicians playing on this record are some of the best in their chosen instrument. What an honor it must be to stand on the shoulders of these giants, but also to feel and connect with them in that moment. There are crescendos of melody throughout the record, and you can feel their souls vibrating together telling the song’s stories.

Other than Miles Miller, longtime drummer and backup vocals with Sturgill (and one of the sweetest and coolest dudes I know), I haven’t met these bluegrass musicians. But when Mark Howard (rhythm and lead guitar) is excited, I’m enthralled. When Scott Vestal (banjo) crescendos, it tickles my spine. Mike Bub (bass) thrums with Miles for the foundation. Sierra Hull (mandolin and vocals) twinkles in a healing way. Tim O’Brien (rhythm/lead guitar, vocals) blankets us in melody, and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) is the sun shining upon it all. I don’t know the producer Ferg, but usually only cool people are allowed in the studio, so he’s gotta have some magic crusted under his finger nails.

If I sound like I’m a fan boy, it’s because I am. But I also am trying to navigate crippling depression and the loss of marriage, friends, fathering children, capability, way of life, and my brother. Sturgill told me a couple months ago, “Bluegrass is healing. There’s something about it.”

When the pandemic’s claws sunk into all of us, Sturgill and I would try and figure what the hell to do. And the only thing that makes sense through insurmountable pain and sadness is to simply do your best and celebrate existence. Celebrate silly-ass dick jokes! Or the beauty of just living. Maybe even find the ability to sit in a singular moment and accept not only it, but yourself, and find the love and connection that is always around us. To me, that’s what this record is all about.

I would encourage you to pull up the lyrics to all of these songs, wear some quality headphones, and I dare suggest a lack of sobriety.

  • All Around You (3:09)

Sturgill and his cohort seem to be a dying breed of artists who create a record as a complete emotional work. People who “know music” better than me are already analyzing this kind of stuff, but the tempo and melody of the songs may echo or contradict the sentiment of the lyrics. The emotional effect resonates as a result.

“All Around You” appears on the third record, Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and is a reminder no matter how hard things are, there’s a universal love always out there. A lot of Sturgill’s themes can be interpreted extremely psychedelic, but they always “double entendre” into calm reminders of love, connection, and happiness.

My family lost my older, mentally handicapped brother, Daniel, this year. My mother thinks of him when she hears this song.

The music weaves beautifully as this song seems to imprint the foundation of love right at the beginning. We need that reminder.

02. All the Pretty Colors (2:19)

This is one of the songs from the Sunday Valley days. It’s interesting to find the old versions of the songs and see how Sturgill developed over time. The sound, feeling, and soul of the music is always growing and evolving, whether hurting or healing. This is apparent live during sound check or shows night-to-night, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness as a fan, friend, and music lover.

These lyrics are standard Sturgill – taking classic themes and leveraging them in a novel way with beautiful lines. Bluegrass has a way of exploring sadness in a healing, upbeat way. And the music takes care of that as Miles and Sierra sing chorus in a fun, dancing song. You’ll notice the band “passes” the focal point back and forth during this record, kind of like a solo. Banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin – they rotate in beautiful sequences conjuring emotion.

03. Breakers Roar (2:30)

“Breakers” hails from the third record, Sailor’s Guide, and now has multiple melodic versions. The album version is dreamy, the live version is upbeat and reggae, and this has a happy, bluegrass spin.

This song always reminds me of depression, as if it’s reaching out to us in our hardest, darkest moments. I routinely think about believing I was dying and how I deserved to. This song is a sweet reminder “it’s all a dream”.

04. I Don’t Mind (4:30)

I aim to be the first to say “I Don’t Mind” will go down as Sturgill’s best song, especially lyrically (click for lyrics). Written long ago and played by Sunday Valley, the song isn’t my story to tell, but it powerfully resonates. As I lay dying, I wanted someone to know I loved them, even though the relationship was over.

One of the stanzas from later in the song:

There’s a world I want to leave
And a world where I want to stay
There’s a dream that I believe
But when I wake up it goes away

I know what it’s like waking up every single day into a nightmare.

I originally wrote my opinion on the ending, but it felt like I spoiled the sentiment by talking about it. I’ll leave the heaviness and realization to you.

Sierra Hull has a beautiful solo of twinkling tears and memory. It’s one of the best on the record and her talent shines. Musically you can hear the band shift into an emotional crescendo midway through the song. What an amazing feeling to be one of those people sharing the extreme highs and lows of pouring their soul into this story.

05. I Wonder (3:15)

After the exasperated sigh after “I Don’t Mind” ends, we slowly walk and weep with the loneliness in this former Sunday Valley song.

The bluegrass band creates such a beautiful sadness. Sometimes at the end of the day you want a sad-ass country song.

Maybe someday you’ll walk into
some bar I’m singing in
You’ll hang your head in sorrow and cry
when you see the shape that I’m in

06. Just Let Go (3:02)

After the devastating emotion of the previous two songs, there’s a collective sigh as we celebrate the liberation from our egos and let our souls dance. This one comes from the Metamodern record.

However you choose to transcend, you can move beyond the pettiness of the material world and connect with everything.

Oh, you have to let go so the soul may fall

Once we accept this, we can start to have fun (both in life and on this record).

07. Life Ain’t Fair (2:01)

Now we celebrate life with a song from Sturgill’s first record, High Top Mountain. The band sounds like it’s having fun with the woven chorus vocals in what seems like an old timey classic.

08. A Little Light (1:44)

Whether psychedelic, spiritual, or religious, the idea of experiencing “light” percolates in up-tempo gospel themes.

All you need is a little light
And the closer you get, Lord, the brighter it turns on

As the shortest, yet sweetest track on the record, it’s indicative of connecting to a singular moment and understanding its beauty. Though these moments can pass quickly, remembering they are possible at any given time means we can always connect to it. All we have to do is notice the light to appreciate it.

09. Life of Sin (2:18)

The fun of life continues with this Metamodern tune. And damn does that mandolin keep shining.

10. Long White Line (2:21)

This bluegrass version of the Metamodern track feels like the original.

11. Living the Dream (2:31)

Sturgill’s songwriting on this Metamodern track uses ironic juxtaposition to wonder what living the dream actually is.

That old man upstairs, he wears a crooked smile
Staring down at the chaos he created
He said, “Son, if you ain’t having fun just wait a little while
Momma’s gonna wash it all away
And she thinks Mercy’s overrated”

12. Old King Coal (2:53)

This High Top Mountain track brings to life a dying breed of culture and its impact on the world and people.

13. Railroad of Sin (2:13)

This rambler from High Top Mountain cranks it up and lets them pickers pick.

“I’m just a poor boy had to beg, steal, and borrow
Just a leaf blowing lonesome in the wind
I’m just a hitchhiker on that old highway of sorrow
Just a high balling train on that railroad of sin”

14. Sitting Here Without You (1:56)

Sometimes these songs seem to want to take all those life experiences and sadness and convert them into another type of energy. Feel the pain, but feel it to understand it and implement that earlier lesson to “let it go”.

“I’m all alone in the night
And I know you ain’t coming back to me
There’s a moon over me so bright
Oh it lights up my sorrow for everyone to see”

15. Sometimes Wine (3:56)

This “new” picker is a Sunday Valley song classically mixing metaphors of drinking and heart ache, yet with a Sturgill twist. I think it’s Mark Howard’s guitar that gets a heavy picking, and what a delight all these artists are.

“You drove me to drinking and ran off with some other man
But a broken heart heals like a bottle empties with time
Since you’ve been gone life’s been more than I can stand
So sometimes whiskey and sometimes wine”

16. The Storm (2:31)

This and the next song are from High Top Mountain. “The Storm” is a powerful journey through emotional turmoil, but this version turns it into a tornado, almost frantic.

17. Time After All (2:14)

Despite the storms in our life, maybe we can find time to experience those sacred moments of acceptance. Calming the mind and body are vital to healing our consciousness. Maybe this is a celebration of slowing down.  

I wanna slow it all down and watch it roll by
see where the sweet melody falls
I wanna roll off the tempo, lay back and get high
cause it’s only time and time after all

18. Turtles All the Way Down (2:19)

This Metamodern song’s placement makes it seem like we’re being reminded to challenge our belief and existence, or maybe to challenge the idea of love being the answer to everything, as it’s the thesis statement of “Turtles”.

Says my son, “It’s all been done
And someday you’re gonna wake up old and gray
So go and try to have some fun
Showing warmth to everyone
You meet and greet and cheat along the way”

Despite some blatant DMT talk, this entendre is a journey through changes in perception, and the lyrics develop in the same way: consistently without refrain. After the self-exploration, things settle on fundamental love.

19. Voices (3:38)

Yet, despite that cultivation and realization of love, we’re reminded to question society and how its noise constantly tries to push us off course. Could this be a call to figuring out how to live with the ying and the yang? Is the cynical fear of society’s impression balanced by the love and compassion of good people? This Metamodern track speaks plainly.  

Don’t call it a sign of the times when it’s always been this way
Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no name
They plot their wicked schemes setting fate for all mankind
With evil that can fill God’s pretty skies with clouds that burn and blind

20. Water in a Well (3:47)

And with that fading glimmer of hope we feel from “Voices”, this High Top Mountain track closes out our journey. Why is something so sad how we are laid to rest? All of these themes are reminders of what existence can bring through acceptance and love, but it doesn’t shy away from how these things pain us. It’s the greatest gift as a mortal to really feel, to experience the highs and lows because they are finite. We will all experience heart ache. But no matter what life entails, we can stop to experience the beauty along the way.

“Water in a Well” might be a sad reminder that truly feeling the sadness makes the sweet ever sweeter.

Also please take note to how this tune closes out. Instead of taking the spot light and having a vocal climax making us say, “Damn, that boy can sing,” Sturgill softly fades himself out, steps aside, and let’s the music gently work to a finale. I don’t know why, but I feel as if he’s bowing to the band for the privilege of sharing the “stage” with them. 

When the record ends, there’s a sense of longing. But we also have the memory of the joy along the way, and I’d be impressed if you didn’t run the whole thing from the top. Say whatever you want about Sturgill, say he will make you feel. And with his team of hillbilly Avengers, they create the sweetest and most heart breaking feels this side of a pandemic.

Thank you for humoring me by reading this, and I hope the above allows someone to connect with this music in the same way I have.  

One thought on “Tears from Grass

  1. Not sure how to begin this so I’ll just dive in: Stu has been a constant in my life since I discovered his music nearly 10 years ago. He’s what brought me to finding you and your words. I certainly haven’t gone through what you have (no comparison, everyone’s journey is their own) but I too have struggled with depression; some real dark thoughts. Picked up a shotgun from. Bi-Mart about a year ago, and not to go chucker hunting… Your story and inspiration have helped me to say “not today. Do something positive today”. Thank you, and thank you for sharing your story.

    p.s. Yeah, Sturgill’s bluegrass album is fucking fire. Also, had no idea he was so funny. DDSS? Hilarious. Thanks again Randy the Snake. Keep on keepn’ on.

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