Exciting collection of bluegrass covers from singer-songwriter and guitar god Billy Strings and his father, guitarist Terry Barber.
Billy Strings can shred on guitar with the kind of diabolical speed and agility normally attributed to the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eddie Van Halen. While there has always been a dedicated bluegrass community, no one was expecting an astonishingly talented millennial to attract a massive new wave of interest in the genre from such unexpected quarters. His “rowdy,” hard-partying, delightfully diverse legion of fans cross all cultural boundaries in the way Willie Nelson’s, Gram Parsons’, and Johnny Cash’s always have. Strings described a cross-section of audience to ‘Spin‘ in 2021: “I’m like, holy shit, there’s a five-year-old, an 89-year-old, a teenager, an old Deadhead, and a long-haired guy with a Slayer shirt on.”
For his fourth album, Strings chose to fulfill a longtime bucket-list item and record with his stepfather, guitar teacher, and longtime jam partner Terry Barber. He even found an old guitar Barber had sold years ago to pay a bill and bought it back for him. Barber is an amateur musician who hosted informal bluegrass jam sessions in his and his wife’s home throughout Strings’ childhood. He married Strings’ mother Debra when Strings was still a toddler and taught him to play guitar before he was old enough to attend school.
Coincidentally, Strings’ biological father, who died of a heroin overdose when Strings was two, was also a guitarist, for further nature vs. nurture speculation. As Strings considers Barber to be his father, that’s how Barber will be referred to here.
Anyone who doubts the veracity of Strings’ Dickensian origin story hasn’t spent any time around poor areas of the American Rust Belt. His lifetime has coincided with an opioid and methamphetamine crisis in all of the places he has lived, not least tiny, drug-blighted Muir, Michigan. His roots are in Lansing, Michigan, where thousands of Greek, Irish, and Polish immigrants came to find work in the mid to late 1800’s, and in Morehead, Kentucky. Strings grew up poor among dysfunction and addiction, in an environment where honing his guitar playing skills was a welcome escape.
On ‘Me/And/Dad‘ it’s immediately clear that Strings and Barber have spent several years jamming together on these classic songs. There is an ease and familiarity in their complex interplay and captured snippets of chat between songs. Barber is a humble presence, whose rough, weathered voice is very appropriate for George Jones songs. Strings’ voice is strong, though he sounds far older than his years. He manages to solo extensively in true jam band style and keep listeners engaged.
Strings replaced his usual band with string band veterans Mike Bub on bass, Ron McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Jason Carter on fiddle. The songs include Doc Watson’s ‘Way Downtown’ and ‘Peartree,’ A P. Carter’s ‘Wandering Boy,’ Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe ‘Little Cabin on the Hill,’ Lawrence Hammond’s ‘John Deere Tractor,’ and traditional bluegrass songs ‘Frosty Morn’ and ‘Long Journey Home.’ Strings’ mother sings on the courtroom drama closer ‘I Heard My Mother Weeping.’
The only thing that could have made this album better is if Strings and Barber had sung together on more songs, because their harmonizing on ‘Little White Church’ is absolutely wonderful. On the other hand, letting Barber be the focal point is a loving thank-you to the big-hearted dad who taught him to play guitar and raised him.