Thoughts & Notes on Sturgill Simpson’s ‘The Ballad of Dood & Juanita’

  • What an epic, cinematic story!
  • The vivid imagery of the characters and details really help paint the picture
  • On that first listen it’s a gripping and emotional rollercoaster as you follow along
  • This album has a vast smorgasbord of country and roots sounds throughout it
  • “Juanita” is absolutely gorgeous! Willie and Trigger sound great and are the perfect finishing touch to a wonderfully laid out song. More on this later
  • The song is emotionally stirring, especially after learning from Sturgill’s interview in Rolling Stone that his grandmother Juanita cried upon hearing this album. There’s no greater feeling than making your family proud
  • Speaking of family, this album brings Sturgill back full circle with his beginnings, not just going back to his roots stylistically, but also thematically since family was a heavy focus on his first album High Top Mountain
  • Dood himself of course greets the listener on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and then the album concludes with the hidden bonus track “Pan Bowl”, which is an ode to Simpson’s family and days of youth spent with them
  • I did not expect to be greeted by the sounds of whistling, the march of battle and the roar of cannon fire and gunfire to open this album. But it’s a pleasant surprise, not just because I think it helps set the time period of the album’s story well, but also because I’m a history buff and I nerd out over little things like this in an album
  • Sure, it’s a bit on the nose to open like this. But its clear Sturgill’s approach to this is more like a movie than an album. More on this later
  • Definitely happy that Simpson utilized sound effects throughout this album, as it really adds to the songs. Just little things like in “Ol’ Dood (Part I)” where when he utters “things he could do with that rifle” and then a short pause to allow the firing of the gun helps tell the story crystal clear to the listener and immerses you more into it
  • Like I said the attention to detail is so great and it’s really this album’s greatest strength. A straight-forward story like this does not work effectively without adding these little touches through each part of the story because the story itself is no groundbreaking, new idea that Simpson is telling. It’s a standard cowboy story that anyone could tell. But to tell it effectively you gotta suck people in and make them care, which Simpson does right away
  • And it’s not just the production elements that are part of these little details, but amusing lines like when Simpson describes Dood’s shot to be so precise he could “blow the balls off a bat.” It’s both hilarious and hyperbolic, fitting for this larger than life, romanticized, overly fictionalized love story
  • In one song, Sturgill establishes Dood pretty quickly and clearly: he’s a tough son of a bitch who takes no shit and was kind of a cold loner until the day he meets Juanita
  • And the effect she has on him is described quite well too. She not only gives him the love of family, but brings out the compassion and caring that was buried underneath. I mean it’s a common trope that’s been done to death in all forms of media where the hardened person softens up and demonstrates growth. But it’s common for a reason because everybody enjoys rooting for this type of character
  • It’s even easier to root for Dood when the conflict that sets up the journey of the story is established: A bandit named Seamus riding up and stealing Juanita and shooting Dood as he takes her away. The man who had found contentment after years of riding alone may have just had his world cruelly ripped away
  • I love the phrase “saw the ball had passed through, clean as a church floor.” It’s one of several “folksy” observations I enjoy in this album. They remind me a lot of the sayings I would hear growing up in my hometown
  • “Shamrock” soars!! Not just the song, but the horse too of course
  • The sound immediately hooks me and doesn’t want to let go. It gets even better when the Hillbilly Avengers get to stretch out and do an instrumental outro
  • The soaring nature of the song makes you feel you’re right there with Dood as he sets off across Kentucky on his journey to find his love. If this was a movie I could picture a nice montage of Dood traversing over hills and across rivers, day and night, with a look of determination in his eyes
  • I could also picture the glorious looking Shamrock, who Sturgill spares no moments describing in an exact detail right down to him not needing horseshoes due to having hooves so thick and also being able to kick coyotes into the stratosphere (followed by a cartoonishly great flying sound effect)
  • I mean’s Sam cool, but Shamrock is cooler!
  • No love for the mule though I guess. Must be a real jackass to be the only character to not get a name or story (even the bad guy gets one)
  • A little detail I love at the end of “Shamrock” to perfectly transition into the next track: the sound of Shamrock moaning with tiredness after days of travel and the crackling of the campfire that bleeds into the next song to signal the rest top and ultimately the crossroads of the journey
  • “Played Out” sees our heroes at their wits end. The trail has gone cold after five days and nights of searching. Dood is broken both physically and mentally. Shamrock is exhausted. And poor Sam’s body has been destroyed. The feeling of hopelessness of our heroes and the situation couldn’t be spelled out any clearer.
  • Then Sam dies and Sturgill makes sure to make this even sadder by going into great details of how the thorns tore up his paws and Sam letting out one last baying call, which I can just hear in my head and it’s sad as hell. The kind of thing that just punches you in the gut when you hear it. But man does it make for a fantastic song!
  • Also anyone who’s had a dog, well at least those who have or have had a dog that runs free in the country, knows the description of Sam running himself literally to death is an accurate description of a dog’s behavior. I can’t forget all the times growing up my brothers’ dogs and mine would run rabbits (or other animals) until they were crawling up the hill to the house. Dogs are so loyal and focused on their goals, but sometimes to a fault and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it; it’s just their nature
  • Sturgill promised a capella and he delivers it on “Sam.” And some great hillbilly harmonies too
  • “A good dog on the ground is worth three in the saddle” – lyrics like this just stick with you
  • Really this whole song has everything I like in a great song, so there’s not a damn thing I would change
  • That being said though, “Juanita” is the clear favorite for me on this album
  • I mean I highlighted it at the very beginning because it immediately bowled me over once I heard it
  • There’s no duo better than Willie and Trigger to deliver that Spanish guitar sound this song called for
  • And no, Willie did not need to have any vocals on this song. I saw some people complain about this and it’s clear they’ve never paid attention to Willie’s guitar playing. Go see him live and you’ll gain an even greater appreciation for it
  • Also one last thing on this complaint: there’s no logical reason to have him on the song. Like there’s no clear moment that Willie should join in and sing, especially since this is Sturgill singing about his grandparents
  • I’m gonna praise the lyrical detailing of Sturgill once again. Setting the scene of Dood laying under the stars, dreaming of his woman and holding her in his arms once again, it gives the song such a satisfyingly romantic feel. I mean putting that on top of the Spanish-driven sound of the song and it feels like cheating to make this song feel so good
  • “You are the ocean, I am a grain of sand” – perfectly conveys the importance of her to him. This contrast is fantastic
  • “Juanita! Where’d your mama get that name?” – Not only am I like many just randomly blurting this line out after hearing because come on it’s so damn catchy, but the passion that Sturgill puts behind the vocal delivery here could not hit any harder
  • And then he follows this up with lyrics so sweet that it makes molasses seem sour
  • Takes me back to a quote Sturgill said years ago at NPR Tiny Concerts where he said the next one is for the ladies, only to pause and then say they’re all for the ladies
  • Don’t sleep on the Hillbilly Avengers in this song either, as they get their own moments to shine in the bridge
  • The last “Juanita!” may be the most impressive, as it’s a pretty dramatic and loud delivery. But it’s necessary to show the desperateness of Dood to find her and have her in his arms once again
  • I really enjoy Sturgill including Native American characters in the story, as I don’t really recall a lot of country songs with them, which surprises me. Maybe there is and I just don’t know about them. If you do, please speak up in the comments!
  • But including them in the story is a nice follow up and foreshadowing on the mentions of Dood being Shawnee at the beginning of the album. In addition, their presence not only advances the story, but also helps further set the time period of the story
  • The blind chief is a really cool character! You gotta have a mentor in the hero’s journey of course
  • Part of me wishes that the moment Dood reunites with Juanita was better fleshed out in another song, but then again there was maybe no use after “Juanita” perfectly captured what she meant to him
  • I’m torn on this part of the story. On one hand, it works fine as is and less is more usually. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded another song here
  • I have to say it’s a rare moment for me to think an album could have been longer
  • Regardless, this album has a very satisfying conclusion on “Ol’ Dood (Part II)” when Dood sets off to kill Seamus and get his revenge
  • Once again the scene of the song is set so well by Sturgill. But my favorite part is the little twist when Dood comes up to inspect Seamus after successfully shooting him 300 yards away, where Seamus is playing possum and tries to lunge at Dood with a knife, only for Dood to tomahawk him.
  • Personally how I envision it in my head is Seamus lunging, but not even really getting close, as Dood calmly whips his tomahawk out and throws it through the air, perfectly catching Seamus in the forehead (since Sturgill sings “moonlight bouncing off that tomahawk” and establishing that Dood has a perfect shot). Furthermore, he says it’s the last thing Seamus sees and you hear a little “whoosh,” which to me sounds like the tomahawk being removed from his head. Either that or it’s the sound of Dood scalping Seamus’ hair as a trophy.
  • The last minute and a half of just hearing the sounds of campfire, a stream of water, frogs croaking and locust chirping with some light banjo and harmonica over it is the perfect closer, as it establishes the peace that has now come over Dood and Juanita.
  • I also like to picture this as Dood making his way home that night and just sitting around the campfire, Juanita holding him, surrounded by his children and Shamrock, with a peaceful and easy smile on his face knowing he has his world back and that the journey he just went on has made him all the more grateful for what he has
  • This is a fun and fantastic album from Sturgill. It’s a fitting conclusion to his five-album arc too. But it’s funny how I think this has the least replayability of all his albums despite me thoroughly enjoying it. And there’s a few reasons I think for this. For one I think this is the most simplistic album Sturgill has delivered, which isn’t a bad thing. The simplicity serves this story well and makes sense. But also simplicity doesn’t make you want to come back for more listens. It doesn’t take that long to really “get” this album. Repeat listens for me have more about appreciating the aesthetics of the album. The other reasoning and what I think is a bigger reason this doesn’t lend as well to replaying as his other albums is this being treated more like a movie than an album. Like to me this is a no-brainer that it should be adapted into a film on Netflix. And Sturgill is clearly interested in movies.
  • But back to it being a movie more than an album hurting it’s replayability: I don’t know about you, but for me I can’t go back and rewatch a movie over and over because nothing beats the freshness of the excitement of the first watch of a movie. It only loses it’s luster with more viewings subsequently right after seeing it the first time. I have to space a good bit of time out before wanting to watch it and really enjoy it again.
  • Really this is often the case with most concept albums that tell one story throughout. The obvious comparison with this album has been Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and I couldn’t really tell you my thoughts on this because I’ve never listened to the album. Yes, I know it’s shocking, especially with me being a big Willie fan. But there’s only so much time to listen to music and it’s just something that’s slipped through the cracks. If anything I feel like me not hearing it helps me look at this album a bit differently. I’m also going to be sure to listen to it now.
  • So the comparisons I thought of with this album instead were Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives’ Way Out West and Dwight Yoakam’s Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room. I love both of these albums just like this album. But my feelings on going back to listen to them feel very much like I’m going to feel with this. Again I really enjoy them, but they’re not albums I go back to listen to all the time. They’re for a specific mood. They’re niche. You have to listen to them in full to gain the greatest appreciation of them. And you certainly can’t break them up in a playlist or listen to the songs individually. So it comes down to how much value you place on this element to determine how much you enjoy it now and in the long run.
  • For me, I look at The Ballad of Dood & Juanita like a fine bottle of wine to pull out on special occasions. It may be a while in between listens, but I’m going to really appreciate it and enjoy it when I do put it on.