The Ballad of Dood & Juanita
(High Top Mountain *** 1/2)
Sturgill Simpson doesn’t embody the country outlaw archetype merely by being a rough-edged bandleader with a rumbling voice that brings Waylon Jennings to mind.
It’s also because the 43-year-old Kentucky native doesn’t go in for pickup-truck, tough-guy posturing, but he does what true rebels do: whatever they want.
Since Sturgill’s genre-expanding 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, that’s meant everything from busking outside the CMA Awards in 2017 for tips he donated to the ACLU to Sound & Fury, his 2018 hard-rock soundtrack to a dystopian Japanese anime film.
Last year, Simpson turned to bluegrass, gathering A-list pickers to rerecord his own songs on two Cuttin’ Grass albums. The Ballad of Dood & Juanita carries on in that spirit with 10 new songs — written in two days and recorded in five with a band that includes Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, and on “Juanita,” Willie Nelson.
The 19th-century story tells of Dood, a Civil War veteran who sets off accompanied by his trusty mule Shamrock and beloved dog Sam to rescue his kidnapped wife Juanita. Dood is half Shawnee and is assisted by a Cherokee chief in finding Juanita’s abductor, so the story plays as a corollary to John Ford’s celebrated 1956 film The Searchers, only this time, Indigenous people aren’t the villains.
The songs are sprightly and the singer is invigorated, telling a concise, satisfying tale. A tear comes to the eye when Dood memorializes his canine best friend as “the hound of hounds.” Simpson claims this is the last album he’ll release under his own name and plans to form a band that allows him to blend into the background. That seems unlikely: His kind of talent tends to stand out in a crowd.
— Dan DeLuca
Sturgill Simpson plays the Outlaw Music Festival along with Willie Nelson & Family, Margo Price, and Gov’t Mule at the Mann Center on Sept. 11. manncenter.org.
Big Red Machine
How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
(Jagjaguwar, *** 1/2 )
Big Red Machine’s How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is equal to the sum of its many distinguished parts. The second album from the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is much more song-centered than its 2018 predecessor, and Dessner is first among equals this time: he had a hand in composing all the songs, often cowriting with Vernon and the numerous guest vocalists; he plays many of the instruments (his moody, circular piano lines anchor most tracks); he sings lead vocals, for the first time, on a pair of tracks.
Dessner worked with Taylor Swift on last year’s folklore and evermore, and Swift collaborates on two songs here, including the wonderful “Renegade,” the album’s most upbeat moment. Other female vocalists abound (as they did on the National’s last album): Anais Mitchell, auteur of Hadestown and member of Bonny Light Horseman, takes the lead twice and duets with Fleet Foxes’s Robin Pecknold once; Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and Shara Nova sing with Vernon on “Hutch,” a tribute to the late Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit; This is the Kit’s Kate Stables duets with Ben Howard on “June’s a River.”
Dessner seems to have scrolled through his contact list to draft collaborators, but the album coheres because of the near-constant presence of Vernon’s voice, either in the foreground or background, and of the songs’ ruminative tones and nostalgic themes.
— Steve Klinge
Elder Jack Ward
(Bible & Tire *** 1/2 )
With his Bible & Tire imprint, Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson has been resurrecting some of the so-called sacred soul that came out of Memphis in the 1970s, as well as recording such exciting young acts as the Sensational Barnes Brothers and Dedicated Men of Zion who are keeping the tradition alive. Earlier this year, he also produced a new album by one of the genre’s originals, Elizabeth King.
Now comes a King contemporary, Elder Jack Ward, and the results are just as transporting. Ward hit the charts in 1964 with the Christian Harmonizers on “Don’t Need No Doctor,” and nearly six decades later he remains in robust voice. He’s backed by the same “Sacred Soul Sound Section” that backed King, led by guitarist Will Sexton, who coproduced the set with Watson. Background vocalists include Ward’s children, the Barnes Brothers, and King, who is featured on “The Way Is Already Made.”
Ward’s vitality as a performer is matched by his sharpness as a writer — he penned all 10 of these first-rate songs. Up-tempo groovers like “He’s Got Great Things” and “Lord I’m in Your Care” infuse the gospel with R&B strains. That’s the essence of sacred soul, and it’s no wonder Ward handles it so confidently — he grew up in Mississippi singing the blues. Meanwhile, the smoldering, openhearted intensity he brings to ballads like “God’s Love” and “I Feel Better Since I Prayed” reaffirm the close ties between gospel and classic Memphis soul. And when Ward rises into skyscraping falsetto on “Someone Who Is Greater Than I,” he shows his voice is as supple as it is strong.
— Nick Cristiano