Rising star flat picker Strings and his band deliver a vigorous blend of bluegrass and contemporary styles with fine lyrics.
Billy Strings has come to be rightly regarded as one of the rising stars of the contemporary bluegrass scene, a flat-picking guitarist capable of both breakneck playing and great sensitivity. On his latest release, his fifth, and second on Rounder Records, recorded with his touring band, he demonstrates a new and broader depth to his musical talents. Taking in both his traditional roots and wider influences in country, rock, and psychedelia its sixteen tracks are the perfect introduction to his talents as both instrumentalist and vocalist.
Opening track ‘I Know it All’ fits firmly in the former category, a rousing high energy up-tempo bluegrass track, with guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo trading licks, all delivered with impeccable musicianship. ‘Running the Route’, a fine instrumental, and ‘Hellbender’ offer further forays into traditional bluegrass, the latter with a classic country theme, as Strings sings “In the cold early morning in the hills of Kentucky/I woke to the sound of the rain/And the girl from last evening laid silently sleeping/though I couldn’t remember her name/My head was a pounding and the sweat poured/around me like the faucet that she left on high/With a chip on my shoulder I’m another day older/and I swear I could break down and cry”, his vocals with a characteristic bluegrass nasal twang.
But it is on ‘Heartbeat of America’ and ‘Hide and Seek’ that Strings and his band take us into uncharted waters. On the former, running in at over 6 minutes, the middle section takes us into folk/prog rock territory, with a distorted vocal over, while we’re into epic psychedelia on ‘Hide and Seek.’ At 9 minutes in length, its extended instrumental section has echoes of Quicksilver Messenger Service or Man, but with new vigour from the unexpected instrumentation for the genre. Lyrically we are firmly in the prog-rock genre “A twisted game of hide and seek/The stench of darkness and defeat/Another day without relief/Leaves me broken/Curtains falling all around/Echoes up from underground/Screaming out without a sound/Leaves me breathless.”
The albums eclectic style takes us to gypsy jazz/ragtime leanings on ‘Ice Bridges’, while album closer ‘Leaders’ is an apposite track to review during Glasgow’s COP 26 conference, a slow tempo song with a softer edge to Strings’ vocals, as he sings, “We’re not the leaders anymore/All our believers washed ashore/We’ve got to find another door/We’re not the leaders anymore/Where are the children left to play?/Let mother nature lead the way/We’re gonna need her love someday/Where are the children left to play?”
Lyrics throughout are thoughtful and carefully crafted, with Strings sharing writing credits on thirteen songs. Produced by Jonathan Wilson (Roger Waters, Father John Misty) Strings is joined on the album by Billy Failing on banjo, Jarrod Walker on mandolin and vocals, Royal Masat on bass and vocals, John Mailander on violin and Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel.
An exceptional blend of bluegrass, country, rock and psychedelia from Strings and his band.
Great review for a magnificent album. Billy and the band were one of my mainstay listening joys during the first lockdown. Here’s hoping there’s a multi-date UK tour before too long.
If it’s of any help Jeremy, he’s just announced two London dates in March 2022, for which tickets go on sale today.
Thanks David. Tried the pre-sale and the general sale. No joy. Here’s hoping for a wider tour. He, and the terrific band, certainly deserve a wider audience.
Very thorough and informative review. I had never heard of him, but you have definitely peaked my interest. I always enjoy your critiques. Thanks much, Bedford