Billy Strings: Home
“I got this little kindergarten book that I made when I was like four or five years old and one of the pages in there is like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I drew a picture of a dude with a banjo and said, I want to be a bluegrass player. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I feel like this is what I was always meant to do. This is what I was put here to do and somehow, I ended up being able to do it. I’m the luckiest guy ever.” -Billy Strings
It’s hard to wrap your head around all that Billy Strings has achieved and accomplished for someone so young. At 26, he’s already shared the stage with folks like Del McCoury, David Grisman, Larry Keel, Sam Bush, The Marcus King Band, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, The String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Widespread Panic, I’m With Her, and many more. He’s performed at countless festivals across the country, like Pickathon, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Merlefest, and Railbird, where Oklahoma Reviews caught him this summer.
Chosen to initiate the brand-new stage in the caverns of Pelham, Tennessee, for a taping of “Bluegrass Underground,” an institution in its own right, he’s collected enough awards and accolades to make your head spin, from the IBMA Momentum Award in 2016, to countless mentions by Rolling Stone and Huff Post. Not to mention a debut album that rose to #3 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. Just last night, September 26, Billy Strings was presented with the 2019 IBMA awards for Guitar Player and New Artist of the Year. It’s a hell of a resume, and it’s a testament to the fact that he is, by all accounts, doing what he was always meant to do.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, he remembers at seven years old being called to sit down and listen to Doc & Dog by Doc Watson and David Grisman. ‘You need to know this,” he was told by his stepfather, who was a talented picker himself. That early love for bluegrass is how he cut his musical teeth and learned how to play, but he “got into electricity” and learned the art of performance in a metal band as a teenager. He eventually navigated back to bluegrass, “drawn in by its honesty, spirit, and seemingly infinite capacity for reinvention.”
Strings says he didn’t have a ‘shitty childhood,’ but recalls ‘lean months,’ times where he saw a lot of substance abuse, had a hard time in school, and basically thought he would end up in prison, or the victim of an overdose or suicide. He delves into those experiences to artfully and thoughtfully expose the heart of the matter, giving us pause to think, and quite possibly, in many situations, as music and words do, giving us a moment of therapeutic reflection.
“I just put it all out there. I say what I’m thinking and it’s coming straight from my heart. It could be a personal thing or it could be very broad. Hopefully by keeping it honest and true and actually putting my real feelings out, people will recognize that and appreciate it. But that’s not why I do it. It’s therapeutic for me. Putting these songs out helps me to get over this shit.”
He moved to Nashville from Michigan in 2016, and since has released a self-titled EP and his debut full-length album, Turmoil & Tinfoil. Produced by Glenn Brown (Greensky Bluegrass), it was met with both popularity and critical acclaim, hailed by American Songwriter for its emphasis on storytelling over holding to genre limitations.
Nowadays, besides creating musical therapy for himself and his listeners and tossing aside genre norms, he plays about 200 shows a year with his band—banjo player Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat, and mandolin player Jarrod Walker. To see Strings and Co live is to witness improvisation and bluegrass being pushed to their limits and to witness that creative collusion between artist and audience.
“That’s what we’re going for, that magic moment when the music lines up and all the people line up and everybody’s feeling just right, everybody’s there together. That thing that happens there is pure magic – maybe the only real magic that exists on the planet.”
Until a live performance comes your way, their second album will take you as close to the outer bluegrass limits as you can go. Recorded in January 2019, it took approximately two weeks in Nashville: first for six days at Blackbird Studios, and followed by a week at Southern Ground. Home is a fantastic collaboration between the band and their guest artists: vocals from Molly Tuttle, fiddle from John Mailander, tabla from John Churchville, and dobro from 14-time Grammy award winner, Jerry Douglas. Produced again by Glenn Brown in conjunction with Rounder Records, September 27, 2019 will go down in history as a happy day for Billy’s fans, who distinctly refer to themselves as “Goats.”
Anticipating greatness as a follow up to his EP and first album, this one exceeded all lyrical and melodic and thematic expectations. Influenced heavily by Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson, North Carolina’s flatpicking, Grammy winning guitar guru, the genius shows again through his songwriting. It is reflective of what he knows, what he has witnessed during his life so far, how he feels about the state of the world, and the authentic way he chooses to express those experiences. Honestly, it captivates you from the first flat pick rhythm and strum. By melding classic bluegrass with jam and folk and punk and metal and just about every other genre, this hybrid of styles heightens our appetites for more than just listening, but truly leaves you wanting to have great experiences through music.
The first song on the album, which was also the first single released to impatient fans earlier last summer, starts off with the most beautiful banjo and guitar work that brings you right in to the seriousness of the lyrics. “Taking Water” seems to be a commentary on what some might feel as the hopelessness of the world around us, particularly focusing on the imagery of a person standing and reflecting on their decaying community, “Nothing left but memories// things I still can’t stand to see// there’s an empty spot in me// where my hometown used to be,” and as the song goes on, he moves toward a more hopeful tone when he sings, “Going down without a fight// but there’s still time to make it right.” He is calling us to action throughout the song as he uses the image of a boat taking on water, ready to sink, but urging the wheel to be turned around as the chorus repeats, “This old boat is taking water// it won’t be long ‘til it goes down// had enough to push us over// time to turn the wheel around.”
Collaboration with other artists during live performances seems to be a standard, and it is great to hear it on this album. He brought his former roommate and fellow musician, the magnificent Molly Tuttle, in to provide harmonizing vocals for “Must Be Seven.” Starting with an upbeat combination of fiddle, banjo, and guitar, Strings lyrics begin with the lament, “It’s probably seven years since we turned around and hit the road that day….” and continues to tell a story of leaving that moves from event to event in terms of “seven years,” and the refrain and event changes with each one. As his fingers go up and down the fretboard with a clearly articulated rhythm, he sings about moving on by emphasizing, “Stay on track// don’t let me see you looking back// Don’t look back.”
“Away from the Mire” is seven minutes and forty-three seconds of pure emotion with waves that fuse experimental instrumentation with another song filled with personal meaning. He said he wrote it when he was pissed off, but that’s his method sometimes. He reads something or sees something, and charges forward with putting it to paper, which later becomes a worthy song that we all love and connect personally to, as well. Serious jamming happens along with the angst he expresses when he sings, “It seemed like we faced the world on our own” and furthers with, “Remember the past as we chose// Spring lied to us this year again// We can’t stand to face the fear again…” Variations of this chorus show up from beginning to end as the music seizes us within his story.
The title track, “Home” is another extended song that has almost ethereal sounds to accompany the powerfully written lyrics. The dropping background instrumentation while the vocals push louder and forward is an effect that gets attention immediately. Combined with the banjo, then the cello, viola and violin, the psychedelic guitar as Billy works the pedals to create those effects, is fascinating. He demonstrates originality over conformity with every note, an electric guitar solo, and singing throughout about home in many different ways… then with the haunting refrain, “I should leave my home// maybe I should slip away.” The vocals fade out, leaving our brains to explode, when this song ends after about seven and a half minutes of pure musical genre synergy.
“Watch it Fall” lends itself more to a traditional bluegrass sound in both tone and music style. The story seems to examine today’s state of the world, and a call for us to self-reflect on our lives, as well as a possible move to action when he questions throughout, “How long until there’s nothing left at all.” He seems to take a shot at environmental policies and not paying attention to what we are doing to contribute, “Don’t you love what you got used to// where we used to feel so free” then finally states, “watch it fall with me…” This is a commentary that needs no real interpretation, and he believes the song, and its message, stands on its own.
The mandolin takes over in the most magical way in “Everything’s the Same.” Mostly written by Jarrod Walker, with a few lines from Billy, the strings are all prominent on this song. Jerry Douglas joins in here, too, as they race toward the end in less than three minutes. The tone provided by the synthesis of strings, applied to the lyrics of “No matter where I roam// everything’s the same,” showcases some of the best bluegrass offered to the music lovers out there! Seeing this performed live must be something very special!
It is always difficult to highlight only a few songs when every single song on this album deserves heaps of praise by the music community - and not just the bluegrass community. Billy Strings has brought sounds to the universe and combined them with gripping lyrics that will connect and stretch your musical palate. He does it all while sharing personal stories and confronting social issues that are important from his world view. Seeing him live with his fantastic band, as he has been known to describe them simply as a “live band who records,” is an amazing experience, but this is about the next best thing until you can!
Brand New Video for “Must Be Seven.” Concept / Creation: Kevin Thomma
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