Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita, the new album from Sturgill Simpson.
In 1975, on the heels of a years-long battle against writer’s block and his major label preventing him from executing his musical vision as he saw fit, Willie Nelson wrote, in the span of four weeks, a song cycle about a murderous preacher in the American Southwest, seeking some form of retribution or revenge. It was unlike anything in Willie’s catalog that came before, sparse and haunting, and was entirely unlike everything that’s come since. It was called Red Headed Stranger.
In 2021, on the heels his own years-long battle against his own major label, Sturgill Simpson has written, in the span of a week, a song cycle about a man named Dood and a woman named Juanita, a tale of retribution and revenge. It’s unlike anything in Sturgill’s catalog that came before, sparse and haunting. It’s called The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, and if it’s not the best country album of 2021, it’s at the very least the most audacious, the most daring, the one that speaks, on a molecular level, to the outlaw country-era of concept albums.
Written and recorded in under a week with the same bluegrass and country ringers that backed him up on last year’s two-album retrospective/palate cleanser, Cuttin’ Grass’, Dood & Juanita dramatizes the story of Sturgill’s grandparents. Dood — a man “harder than the nails that hammered Jesus’ hands” — and Juanita are the same couple lionized in High Top Mountain, and that’s Dood doing the intro at the beginning of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. In the midst of a love story that ends with kids and grandparents, there’s a kidnapping, a murder, a horse worthy of his own song (“Shamrock”), blood, vengeance and a good dog. Transposing Dood and Juanita’s story onto the Civil War means that the album has not much by way of amplified instruments and barely any percussion beyond a shaker; the fury in these songs is provided by a wave of fiddles and mandolins and guitars. There were plenty of thrills on the Cuttin’ Grass series, but Sturgill is even more at home here than he was on those albums.
I won’t spoil the story here, but the rewards of Dood & Juanita come in waves. First, it’s the raucous bluegrass that it captures. Then, it’s Sturgill’s voice, which is in fine form here, malleable over the different modes of the album. Then, it’s the story, a loving tribute from a grandson to his grandparents. It’s The Hobbit in country album form, with 1000% more dogs.