“The Ballad of Dood & Juanita”
(High Top Mountain, ★★★￼
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.