In 1997, Kentucky-raised superstar Ricky Skaggs shifted the gears on his 18-wheeler of a country music career and re-introduced himself as one of the most powerful bluegrass artists in America. Leading the band Kentucky Thunder, Skaggs helped usher in an era of growth in traditional music not seen since the 1960s folk revival. In the past month, two renegades from the new Kentucky country music vanguard - Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson - released surprise albums that write new a new chapter in that book.
Long Violent History by Childers may, as a matter of form, be unprecedented in country music history, with eight old-time fiddle tunes creating a musical and cultural context to set up a single, high-impact song at the end. It’s a study in reckoning, whether looked at for its bold socio-political stance or the artist’s engagement, in mid-career, with a new instrument and an old tradition. Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Session) by Simpson is a state-of-the-art bluegrass album made with some of the finest musicians working today, featuring twenty songs from his catalog arranged for string band. While many in the overlapping fan bases of these new era country songwriters are likely to have a working awareness of bluegrass and old-time, these coincident releases define a teachable moment in the history of acoustic roots music.
Simpson came from a coal mining family line and pursued several veins of songwriting and performing in the 2000s before emerging in 2013 as a critically acclaimed artist in the outlaw country mode. Each album showed brash new stylistic gestures, while his ornery wit and earned him a kind of proto-mythical quality, and he grew like a nova into an arena-selling hard country indie rocker with no country radio support whatsoever. Tyler Childers emerged in 2017 as something of a protégé of Simpson, who produced Tyler’s debut album Purgatory. With incisive, revelatory lyrics that suggested a young John Prine, Childers earned a fast-growing, down-home fan base of enviable intensity and loyalty. Childers was opening arena shows for Simpson when the Covid shutdown came along, putting the creators in a position of finding something new to try.
Their home-bound audiences were more than ready. Both projects debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes national albums chart and spent their first week in either the number one or two position, outselling The Eagles and the K-Pop band Loona, among others. And they both made news. Simpson telegraphed his album on social media and during a streamed show in an empty Ryman Auditorium with the Cuttin’ Grass studio band in early June, though the actual album release on Oct. 16 came with only a day’s heads up. The Childers album, recorded in August, came like a lightning strike on the evening of Sept. 18. Or maybe two strikes. It took a public stand on a hot issue that agitated his conservative fans, something I covered at the time. At the same time, Long Violent History is mostly an album from a regional folk sub-genre, defiantly non-commercial and thus musically radical in its own way.
“It feels like the world is watching Kentucky this year,” says songwriter Kelsey Waldon, a state native and a long-time musical colleague and friend of both Simpson and Childers. She is referring to the fury after Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot by police in her home during a no-knock drug raid and to the divisive politics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is being challenged by Amy McGrath. Simpson and Childers, she says, “are some strong voices to show that the South and Kentucky and our region and its culture is for all people. It's not just white people. It's not just the Confederacy. So I think there's a lot of people, including myself, you know, maybe trying to shine a different light on that.” She adds that this new musical direction “also represents true Kentucky resilience and independence. Both them are very much their own person and have a lot to say.”
Sturgill Mows It Down
Artists regularly say that the Covid-19 pandemic has given them the time and motivation to develop projects they’ve had in mind for years. This is perhaps even more true for Sturgill Simpson than for most, in that he actually contracted a pretty bad case of the illness. (The ‘rona, he called it.) In a letter to fans through his e-mail list, he tells the story of getting laid low just as his Sound & Fury tour was being shut down as venues closed in March. After an ER visit, he recovered at home, and while doing so he started to fool around on social media and raise money for charity. Long story short, he promised his fans he’d play a bluegrass show and make an album if they hit a donation threshold. “Well, they blew those goals completely out of the water, so really it was the fans made this album happen,” he wrote. “Otherwise I may have just as easily spent all summer fishing and changing diapers.”
Folks from Simpson’s inner circle say a bluegrass album was always in the cards. His drummer Miles Miller told me it was “inevitable.” And Mike Bub, bass player on the project, says it’s something Simpson’s fans have been waiting for a long time: “He's always touted bluegrass. He's always mentioned that his music comes out of bluegrass as an influence.” Simpson goes into detail about this in the letter as well, tracing his bluegrass revelations, from his grandfather exposing him to it as a kid to connecting with it deeply as an adult. Simpson moved to Nashville for a spell in 2005 and spent most every Sunday night at the Station Inn, participating in the jam sessions, he recalled. And he tied those stirrings to the concept of Cuttin’ Grass.
“All the songs I’ve ever recorded in my life were written on one guitar, a Martin HD-28 I’ve owned since I was much younger, and sung in a fashion that was probably closer to bluegrass or country blues than to anything else. So doing a bluegrass album was always in my heart and in the back of my head. Someday I wanted to cut as many of these songs as possible in that fashion, just organic and stripped down to the raw bones of the composition, without any heady production. If you can’t sit down and play the song like that, it’s probably not a very good song.”
The twenty cuts come from all of Simpson’s prior albums, minus the hard rock Sound & Fury of 2019, and each one goes on its own stylistic journey. Album opener “All Around You” morphs from its Memphian horn-driven shuffle on A Sailor’s Guide To Earth to a string waltz led by a mandolin. From 2013’s High Top Mountain, the most down home of his projects so far, Simpson taps “Old King Coal,” “Sitting Here Without You” and “Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean,” a jangly honky-tonker that the late Jimmy Martin would have probably recorded. “A Little Light” from Metamodern Sounds In Country Music gives the grass album it’s gospel note, while the psychedelic celebration of “Turtles All The Way Down” makes for an amusing harmony duet with bluegrass star Sierra Hull, whom I’m willing to bet hasn’t taken an ayahuasca trip. Simpson reaches back to his country rock band Sunday Valley for “All The Pretty Colors,” which he declares “the most definitively bluegrass song on the record,” and he traces the ballad “I Don’t Mind” back to his bar-playing days in the mid 2000s, noting that his wife loves this one and insisted it be included.
“These songs just adapted so well to this band that Sturgill assembled with (producer Dave Ferguson), and just came off really great,” said Mike Bub “And, you know, you look around the room. It's just it's an interesting group of people.” Indeed, besides Sierra Hull, the three-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year and Bub, the MVP of Nashville bass playing bluegrass sidemen, the band includes longtime star Tim O’Brien and fiddle veteran Stuart Duncan. Scott Vestal, a Steve Martin Prize winner, played banjo. The lesser-known but influential picker Mark Howard adds guitar, and Miles Miller plays light-touch drums. While we’ve seen prominent country artists hire top-shelf side musicians to make them sound convincing recording bluegrass, Simpson’s command here is unmistakable. Bub says the sessions moved fast with arrangements on the fly and few re-takes of anything. Simpson had 1950s and 60s bluegrass sounds in his head and Ferguson, master recordist of the Outlaw country and bluegrass greats, captured it honestly in his famous Butcher Shoppe locale.
Of course, with Simpson, there’s always a sardonic undercurrent. On the cover of Cuttin’ Grass, Vol 1, he poses on a riding lawnmower, looking like a cross between Walter from The Big Lebowski and George Jones making his infamous trip to the liquor store. That is to say he looks and sounds completely at home.
Tyler Takes Up The Fiddle
If you wanted an audible lesson in the difference between bluegrass and old-time music, you could listen to Sturgill’s album and Tyler’s Long Violent History back to back. Where Sturgill’s album is concisely played by experts, with a five-string banjo roll at its heart, Tyler’s opus feels like a loose porch jam among picking pals with no vocals (save for the last song) and no solos, just fiddles leading the melodic way. The tunes have history in and from the region, which is where Childers started his fiddle journey, through friends of his who are leaders of a Kentucky old-time renaissance, Jesse Wells and Brett Ratliff.
“Jesse and I formed a band called Clack Mountain String Band,” says Ratliff, who’s known Wells since they were young musicians in high school. He is program director for Appalshop’s radio station WMMT in Whitesburg, KY and a teacher at the Swannanoa Gathering among other festivals. Meanwhile, Wells is assistant director and archivist for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY. “There were no fiddler's conventions in Kentucky,” Ratliff continues. “So we started one and started having competitions and workshops on a regular basis and basically, just organizing around the music and trying to turn as many people onto it as we could. There's a large gap between the older generation playing it and then our generation. So we were young and raring to go.”
Since the Fall of 2018, Jesse Wells has been fiddler and guitarist in The Food Stamps, Tyler’s band. While on the road with the double bill of Childers and Sturgill on 2019’s Sound & Fury tour, Wells remembers carrying two fiddles in his kit, and one started to mysteriously go missing. “I found it in the back room with Tyler,” he says. “And he was just kind of noodling around. And he said he wanted to learn how to play. There's something about that instrument that draws people certain people to it. I think he found himself in a place where he was ready to explore something new musically, and it just happened to be the fiddle.”
Wells informally took Childers on as a student as he had so many others before, showing him the repertoire that new fiddlers learn, and that became the heart of the song list on Long Violent History. “Midnight On The Water” has Texas origins but spread across the country as a ubiquitous theme and contest tune. Another with the same modal cross-tuning on the fiddle and more explicitly Kentucky origins is “Zollie’s Retreat.” The album includes “Carroll County Blues,” a bluegrass tune from the Bill Monroe repertoire, slowed down and re-grooved so much that they gave it the new title, “Sludge River Stomp.” Fans of John Hartford are familiar with “Squirrel Hunter,” a tune of Pennsylvania origin that he popularized near the end of his influential life. Most unusual is the opening track “Send In The Clowns,” which Wells says is a standard that Childers just happened to fall in love with. Whatever political humor may have been implied by the choice and the positioning of this orchestral sounding track remains, as far as I can discern, Tyler’s secret.
As for the rest of the band and vision, we can turn to the liner notes for the project written by another friend of this clan, traditional songster and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons.
“For this epic recording session in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Tyler Childers and his bandmate Jesse Wells meticulously curated a modern string band known as “The Pickin’ Crew”. This group of stellar Americana artists included myself, 5-string Kentucky banjo specialist John Haywood, mandolinist Andrew Marlin (of Mandolin Orange), guitarist Josh Oliver, upright bassist John R. Miller, fiddler Chloe Edmonstone and cellist Cecelia Wright. Although Tyler has been playing the fiddle for under a year, his style and technique as learned under the tutelage of Jesse Wells proves that Kentucky string band music is in his blood.”
As if to prove it, near the album’s end, after seven ensemble tunes, Tyler tackles the standard “Bonaparte’s Retreat” all by his lonesome self, playing its double stops boldly and skillfully with barely ten months of study behind him. This at a time when Childers was moving from a cabin with no utilities to a home with water and power and while he was getting sober. Which is to say that just about everything about Long Violent History took nerve.
“For Tyler to go so far, to go so deep into traditional music was really shocking,” says Ratliff. “It was a pleasant surprise, because we've been working so hard. And I know what was behind Jesse's motivation. And I know that Jesse had to have had a large hand in making that happen. So it was it was great to see that out in the world and people's reaction to it. Because I mean, where else do you get that? It's just not something that's in mainstream consciousness.”
Bluegrass was born from Kentucky soil and out of the Appalachian fiddle music that Bill Monroe heard his Uncle Pendleton Vandiver play when he was growing up. The influence of old-time and the bluegrass is imprinted on any credible country musician from the region, but it doesn’t always get a chance to burst forth and touch a ready-made audience. To see it happen twice in one season from two entwined and massively successful careers helps make the lonesome blues of 2020 a bit more bearable.