Album Review – Billy Strings – “Me / And / Dad”

The moment that Billy Strings is enjoying right now is one of those that future generations will look back upon with envy at those who got to witness it in real time. Like country fans who wax nostalgic for the 70s Outlaw era with Willie and Waylon ruling the roost, or the time when grunge kicked hair metal to the curb, with Billy Strings bridging the world of jam bands and bluegrass, he’s distinguished himself as a generational talent, and something we never thought we would see in this world or any other: a bluegrass superstar.

But with the way Billy Strings likes to expand the boundaries of bluegrass when he performs live—reaching into the realm of improvisation or mashing some effects pedal and bounding into the world of rock—a sense of inevitability has hung over his career, with fans anticipating the moment that Billy abandons his bluegrass roots altogether for the unrestricted realm of some sort of genre-less, avant garde experimentalism. After all, how could any genre contain a creative force such as Billy Strings?

If there was an ideal time for Billy Strings to hop off the bluegrass train, it would be right now. He’s at the height of his powers, and the peak of his commercial applicability, selling out arenas now and setting the music world on fire well beyond the humble environs of roots music. So what does he do to codify his dominance of the live music space? He goes off and records the most straightforward album of bluegrass and country standards as possible, and invites his father who instilled him with the love of bluegrass into the studio as his collaborator. I’m not sure this crooked ol’ world deserves this young man.

These days when an artist wants to make an album for themselves, it’s usually some off-brand genre-bending self-indulgent ear screw, almost purposely composed to insult their core fan base under the misconception this somehow codifies their artistic integrity. For Billy Strings though, his passion project involves doubling down on what got him here, and delivering that straightforward album of bluegrass standards many fans have wanted from him for a while.

The goal of Me / And / Dad is quite simple: to capture the songs Billy’s dad Terry Barber taught him as a kid, and that they played together for years. It’s for posterity, and a bucket list item Billy wanted to scratch off before it was too late. Whether you or I enjoy it, whether we would have selected a different set of songs, or done something entirely different for Billy’s latest album is immaterial. This is one of those albums where the results mean more than whatever entertainment value you or I will glean from it.

To make the album as authentic to bluegrass as possible, Billy passed on using his live band, even if they could have handled the task just fine, and brought in a set of traditional bluegrass ringers, namely fiddle god Michael Cleveland, dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, fiddler Jason Carter, mandolinist Ron McCoury, banjo player Rob McCoury (basically, the Travelin’ McCourys), and bassist Mike Bub. As you can imagine, there are no wrong notes on this record whatsoever.

Sure, Billy’s dad Terry is not some spectacular singer. This is somewhat evident on the second song “Life To Go,” which is a George Jones song done bluegrass style. Nobody will ever match or surpass the singing of George Jones though. That’s not the point. When Barber and Billy harmonize though, a beautiful sound ensues that can’t be matched either. Bound by blood, these are the kind of harmonies you can’t perfect even with professional, pitch perfect singers. When father and son sing “Way Downtown” and “Little White Church,” it’s absolutely divine.

One of the only flaws on the album is that harmony singing was left off of their version of “Dig A Little Deeper (In The Well).” But one of the cool things about this album for country fans is that some of these songs are country songs done in a bluegrass style. “Dig a Little Deeper” was made famous by the Oak Ridge Boys. The aforementioned “Life To Go” was a George Jones hit. “John Deere Tractor” was done by The Judds.

And the words of songs like “John Deere Tractor” and “Wandering Boy” mean a little something more when presented on an album like this. So does “I Heard My Mother Weeping” where Billy’s mom Debra Barber also appears. It truly is a family affair. But with the playing of Billy and all the other players he assembled for the album, the album still remains a world-class offering of bluegrass.

When the legacy is written for Billy String, Me / And / Dad won’t be counted as one of Billy’s landmark releases that rewrote the rules on bluegrass. After all, it’s an album of standards, some of which have a dozen or more renditions out there. But the album will nonetheless be regarded as one of the most important albums of the Billy Strings career because beyond the music, it underscored and illustrated the character and passion he brought to preserving bluegrass and putting family and people first, even when he was at his zenith of popularity.

8/10

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