By Helen Jerome
In The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, Sturgill Simpson has created something extraordinary.
In The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, Sturgill Simpson has created something extraordinary. A post-Civil War epic in miniature, he’s forged his own mythical folk tale, celebrating one man and his beloved mule and hound as they journey in Kentucky.
Apparently, Simpson had been mulling over the idea and the title for years, then had a sudden burst of inspiration and clarity - fired up by listening to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and whilst acting in Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Killers of the Flower Moon. So he leapt into action, putting it all together in two days and recording it in less than a week with his fabulous band of bluegrass brethren who he’s dubbed the Hillbilly Avengers.
Simpson says he’s only ever really been interested in concept albums, wanting to write an actual story from “front to back”. He wastes no time, setting the scene quickly in the opening ‘Prologue’, with sounds of gunfire and the whistling of troops after the Civil War conjuring that specific time and place.
Diving into ‘Ol’ Dood (Part I)’, the band is led by a scraped and plucked fiddle, as Simpson narrates tautly; “he was harder than the nails hammered Jesus’ hands / he was the one they called Dood”. You can sense how this man loomed larger than life for Simpson; his lyrics summoning up a seething individual who changed when he found a good woman, Juanita, who calmed his rage.
‘One In The Saddle, One On The Ground’ is so intimate you can pretty much hear him drawing breath as he continues the tale from the moment everything changed - Juanita working in the garden one day when a bandit rides up, shoots Dood and steals her. Harmonica drifts in to underpin specific, dramatic moments; “Last thing he remembers was Juanita screaming / As the world faded black and Dood crumpled down”.
As the story continues, the focus shifts to his mule; ‘Shamrock – Hot On The Trail’ coming straight from the Earl Scruggs playbook. Against a banjo mimicking Shamrock’s hooves, Simpson’s praise the virtues of his mule, evoking the sound of an old Western theme song. The mandolin steers towards its conclusion, slowing right down as mule does, before all that's left is the sound of a burning campfire and coyotes in the distance.
On ‘Played Out’, the trail goes cold and the wound remains painful: “holes in my buckskin / still wet with bloodstain”. Ragged and raw, just five days into their quest for Juanita, justice and revenge, Dood’s hound Sam passes; he buries him, the harmonica and jaw harp winding down into a melancholy lament.
As Dood gets sicker, he drifts in and out of consciousness; conjuring up the image of his beloved in the hopelessly romantic tune ‘Juanita’; “All that’s keeping me alive / is the thought of losing you.” It’s hard to think how this song could be improved, before Willie Nelson enters with his guitar, bending his notes as to give way to shuffling percussion.
On ‘Go In Peace’ the couple reunite over upbeat, celebratory Scruggs-y banjo and wild violin, as the story plays out across an ‘Epilogue’ of Civil War soldiers marching, Dood still aiming to track down the bandit. With the closing song, ‘Ol' Dood (Part II)’ there are echoes of the final scene in The Revenant, the drama of barely-contained rage and vengeance compressed into a four-minute conclusion, coming to its final end with the gentle, contemplative sound of bullfrogs, a warm campfire and wistful harmonica.
Blisteringly good storytelling from Sturgill Simpson and his bluegrass band – and there’s not an ounce of fat on here. We only wish it were twice as long. Maybe he has a sequel up his sleeve?
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