We are currently experiencing the era of billy strings in bluegrass. Not unlike the eras marked by Bill Monroe's establishment of the discipline and the rise of acts like Flatt & Scruggs, later JD Crow and The New South, helped define the heights of the subgenre, and then people like John Hartford helped in founding the Newgrass movement, it is the face of Billy Strings that you will see as you turn to the current chapter of this proud art form.
It could also be an era considered one of the most profound and precious in bluegrass history, when new fans flocked to this ancient yet energetic and captivating medium due to the engaging nature of this unique, almost unearthly artist. Billy Strings symbolizes a renewal – if you will – of this version of country music that can attract and hold men and women, whom we regard with no less majesty than the masters of earlier eras and musical disciplines, from the guitar gods of the 60s and 70s , to Mozart.
Words are missing when it comes to describing the virtues that Billy Strings displays in a live context. Elegant flourishes of flowery prose still seem like platitudes that fail to contextualize his creativity and contribution, and exaggeration is impossible as it can meet or exceed any expectation. Billy Strings is such a creative dynamo, you have to worry that at some point he will simply evaporate in the ether and become more musical than humans, or turn into a Béla Fleck character, where he will be so bored that he will go crazy for something esoteric musical journey that few of us can follow.
But what is so surprising about the new Billy Strings album Renewal is the fairly straight forward nature of the project, with a few obvious exceptions. We expected him to feel so inhibited by the bluegrass genre two albums ago to work with Steve Aoki or something. Who knows, this could be the direction all of this is going in the future. In the run-up to this record, Strings even said himself that he did not know whether he considered himself more than bluegrass. But bluegrass is what you get, no matter how lofty in stature or spacey in sections it gets.
When you get into a new Billy Strings album you know that what you experience live can never be recorded in a studio of the same caliber. Even a live album will only hold a small amount to stand in the audience. But instead of trying to capture those surreal moments on a disc, Billy Strings and his cohorts have to embrace studio time as a separate medium. Live it almost doesn't matter which song Billy Strings plays. It could be one of his or an old bluegrass standard. In this way, he and his incredible band break free from the rules and fetters of conventional music and make their way through the unknown firmament. A song is just a starting point; more of an idea than a structure.
But Renewal is full of purposeful bluegrass songs, often co-composed with co-authors to ensure that the lyric didn't just play a minor role while additional players were brought in – notably John Mailander on violin and Spencer Cullum Jr. on the Pedal Steel – to work out specific tracks. They joined the key players behind Billy Strings – banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat and Jarrod Walker on mandolin, who deserve incredible credit for following Billy Strings in his musical exploration and helping make it all for the Rest of us is accessible.
The improvisation is still where Billy Strings will leave his deepest mark on the music world, not necessarily the lyrical composition. But compared to Billy's last album Home, this album doesn't try to find an ethereal hole in the universe to jump through. It focuses more on delivering only high quality bluegrass songs that work all on their own to tell a story or convey a message, and provide a space for outstanding instrumentation. Granted, Billy's latest album Home also won a Grammy and wasn't a shoddy effort. But at Renewal, Billy Strings and Co. feel like they have the approach of making a studio recording more correct. And hey, it will probably win a Grammy too.
Don't worry if bluegrass straight ahead isn't generally enough to hold your attention span, or whatever springtime you come from Billy Strings to drink, songs like "Heartbeat of America" and "Hide and Seek" have the other – more worldly and imaginative Space jam aspect that you crave. But Renewal also has songs like “Know It All” and “Secrets” that open the album and are just damn good bluegrass songs. Tracks like “Hellbender” and “This Old World” help anchor the album in bluegrass traditions so that it is not so absurd to be inaccessible. And despite the flattery of Billy's musical acumen mainly focused on his guitar playing, his voice is suited to high harmony bluegrass and is a powerful asset in itself.
Country music is so often misunderstood by the outside world as a simple and restrictive form of expression. The great thing about the bluegrass discipline – and what Billy Strings illustrates to the masses – is that bluegrass can be the stepping stone to explore the highest levels of humanity in music. But it is also a way to speak directly to the hearts of the common people. On Renewal, Billy Strings does both, in a way that flatters bluegrass not only in a way that remains relevant to the modern ear, but in a way that defines the essence of the genre in the modern age.
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