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New Releases From Sturgill Simpson, William Prince, Becky Warren and Devon Gilfillian

Courtesy of the Artist
Sturgill Simpson

This week we dig into Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass album, a First Nation Gospel album by William Prince, a defiant album by Becky Warren, and Devon Gilfillian’s rendition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

Sturgill Simpson surprised everyone last week when he released Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions, an album of bluegrass reinterpretations of Simpson’s biggest hits. Simpson found inspiration from the music he listened to with his grandfather while growing up in Kentucky.

After battling Covid-19 and the cancelation of his tour Simpson was drifting through life and felt completely lost, but while driving in his car he heard a Monroe Brothers song. Like a ship’s anchor resetting after being dislodged and aimlessly floating, bluegrass grabbed Simpson and made him feel like he was home. It was as if the moment unearthed memories of listening to music with his grandfather and soothed Simpson’s existential dread.

Cuttin’ Grass feels like an artist with a purpose and direction. This is especially evident when compared to Simpson’s 2019 release Sound and Fury, a rock n roll, prog-rock, psychedelic, fever dream with an accompanying Netflix anime. Sound and Fury feels like an artist that is completely lost, but it is Simpson’s fearlessness that allows him to take creative risks. Cuttin’ Grass was a risk worth taking because Simpson created his best album. Simpson’s voice interplaying with a bluegrass bounce is infectious and takes his vocals to new places.

Spanning 20 tracks Cuttin’ Grass is an effortless listening experience, without a single dud on the album. Sturgill Simpson sounds at home on Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions and hopefully as the full album title suggests we get to stop by Simpson’s home for a few more volumes.

Gospel music has taken many forms over the past two hundred years, but the heartbeat of gospel music is when it gives voice and hope to the oppressed and disenfranchised. The word gospel means “good news” and is taken from Luke 4:18, a passage Jesus announces what he will do while on earth “…to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to set the oppressed free…” Gospel is meant to be intrinsically connected to poverty and those being crushed by systemic oppression. “Diversity” has recently turned into a trigger word for those who believe in cultural marxism, but in theology, diversity only brings about a fuller understanding of God. Cultural experiences different from the hegemonic perspective allow everyone to interpret what the “good news” is for today.

William Prince delivers a radical interpretation of good news on his album Gospel First Nation. From Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, Canada Prince brings a stark and original perspective to the Christian narrative. In the reimagining of Jesus, Prince reveals a dire need for diverse voices to be heard. Prince lives in two worlds, one as a displaced, culturally erased member of The First Nations, and is a practicing member of a religion that forced the displacement and cultural eraser. In an accompanying video, Prince said, “As a young person, I never fully understood why the divide between cultural and Christian First Nations people existed.” Continuing Prince wrestles with a hard truth, “In actuality, the very singing of these songs and belief in a Lord and Savior is the success of a plan to extinguish Indian identity. This album is an amalgamation of two realms.”

Through his lyrics, Prince lays the tattered hearts of the First Nation on an alter and refuses to leave till God heals what God’s people have broken. Prince invites us to see what colonialism has wrought, calling those who benefited from colonialism to repentance and reconciliation. Prince’s voice is distinct, sounding like a mix of 90’s radio country and Tempest era Bob Dylan.

Musically Prince’s low baritone slowly flows rivers of lyrics, where words are stretched and merged over understated country gospel instrumentation. Complex simplicity maximizes the emotional clarity, creating songs that are greater than the sum of its parts. William Prince’s Gospel First Nation is a powerful album that can spark change and instill hope.

Becky Warren garnered acclaim and widespread praise for her ability to write songs that tell the story of the least seen in American society. Her first album War Surplus told the story of a soldier coming home from war and the devastating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder. Warren’s follow up album Undesirable told the stories of those experiencing homelessness in Nashville. Both albums shed light on unseen and intentionally overlooked segments of society. She created songs that humanized and called listeners to see themselves in her characters.

On her newest album The Sick Season, Becky Warren turns inward and conveys her struggle with depression. Songs in which she sings about regret, self-destruction, taking pills to forget the pain, aimlessly wandering streets, and apathy. But don’t be fooled by the innately sad subject matter, The Sick Season is not a gloomy record at all. Warren channels Lucinda Williams and Paul Westerberg, undercutting any notion the album is a pity party or lament. Warren brings a raucous attitude and swagger of a victorious boxer having won a hard-fought battle. It feels as though Warren is on the other side of depression and can look back with emotional vulnerability. It is hard not to think about how Warren hid her depression in the stories of other people, denying her own experience and invalidating her struggles. Summoning the idea that someone else has it worse, so I have nothing to complain about. Warren is doing for herself what she did for others on her previous albums, Warren is honoring her experience and telling her story.

Devon Gilfillian has to be one of the most confident artists alive. After releasing a critically acclaimed debut album Black Hole Rainbow in January 2020 Gilfillian decides to cover Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. It is hard to overstate the importance of Gaye’s What’s Going On, which dethroned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. When Gaye released the album in 1971 America was dealing with the immense violence of the Vietnam War, the loss of hippie ideals, fear of the Black Power movement, police brutality, The Kent State massacre, riots, political assassinations, and the corruption of the Nixon, Agnew administration. Amid all the turmoil Gaye released an album that married soul, R&B, gospel, and protest music, nothing like it had ever been made before. What’s Going On spoke to the grieved and aggrieved.

Gilfillian felt that today’s sociopolitical climate mirrors the release of What’s Going On and wanted to spread the message Marvin Gaye left us with. Gilfillian reflected, "I don’t have much political power, but I do have the power of music,” explains Devon Gilfillian. “I decided I wanted to learn the entirety of Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Going On, and use that music to share the message that Marvin was trying to get across 50 years ago. Every word still rings with such relevance.”

This is a heavy burden for any artist to carry, but Gilfillian lives up to the impossible task. Gilfillian’s rendition of What’s Going On is captivating from beginning to end. Every song is enthralling and captures the same desperation found in Gaye’s voice. With only minor deviations from the original songs, Gilfillian showcases his unfiltered talent. On top of recreating one of the greatest albums of all time, Gilfillian is donating 100% of the proceeds to The Equality Alliance. If you find yourself loving What’s Going On make sure to also buy Devon Gilfillian’s Black Hole Rainbow.

Cory Martin is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., writing about movies, music and pop culture.

Val Hoeppner is the executive director of WMOT 89.5, executive producer of Wired In, 895 Fest, 895 Sessions, 895 Feast and the AmericanaFest Day Stage presented by WMOT, World Cafe and NPR Music. Hoeppner joined WMOT in 2014 and helped transition WMOT from mixed format to American Roots in 2016.