Right now, we are living through the era of Billy Strings in bluegrass. Not dissimilar to the eras marked by Bill Monroe’s founding of the discipline, and the rise of acts like Flatt & Scruggs, then later as J.D. Crow and The New South helped define the heights of the subgenre, and then folks like John Hartford helped launch the newgrass movement, it’s the visage of Billy Strings that you will see whenever you turn to the current chapter in this proud art form.
It also might be an era chronicled as one of the most profound and valued in bluegrass history, where new fans flocked to this old, but energetic and enthralling medium due to the engaging nature of this unique, almost other-worldly performer. Billy Strings symbolizes a renewal—if you will—of this version of country music that can attract and contain men and women who we regard with no less majesty than the maestros of previous eras and musical disciplines, from the guitar gods of the 60’s and 70’s, to Mozart.
Words fail when comes to describing the virtues Billy Strings displays in the live context. Elegant flourishes of flowery prose still comes across like platitudes failing to contextualize his creativity and contributions, and hyperbole is impossible since he can rise to meet or surpass any expectation. Billy Strings is such a creative dynamo, you have to worry that at some point he will just simply vaporize into the ether and become more musical apparition than man, or morph into a Béla Fleck character where he gets so bored, he goes off on some esoteric musical journey only a few of us can follow.
But what is so surprising about the new Billy Strings album Renewal is the rather straightforward nature of the project, with some obvious exceptions. We expected him two albums ago to start feeling so inhibited by the bluegrass genre, he’d start collaborating with Steve Aoki or something. Who knows, that might be the direction this all heads in the future. Strings even said himself in the run up to this record that he didn’t know if he considered himself bluegrass anymore. But bluegrass is what you get, no matter how elevated in stature, or spacey it becomes in stretches.
You know going into a new Billy Strings album that whatever it is you experience live will never be captured at the same caliber in a studio. Even a live album will still only hold a slim measure to standing there in the audience. But instead of trying to ensnare those surreal moments on a disc, Billy Strings and his cohorts must embrace the studio time as a separate medium. Live, it almost doesn’t even matter what song Billy Strings is playing. It could be one of his, or an old bluegrass standard. It’s the way he and his incredible band unmoor themselves from the rules and bonds of conventional music, and make their way through the uncharted firmament. A song is just simply a jumping off point; more an idea than a structure.
But Renewal is full of purposeful bluegrass songs often composed with co-writers to make sure lyricism isn’t just a secondary concern, while additional players were also brought in—specifically John Mailander on fiddle, and Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel—to flesh out certain tracks. They joined the essential players behind Billy Strings—banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin who deserve incredible credit for following Billy Strings on his musical exploration, and helping to keep it all accessible to the rest of us.
Improvisation is still where Billy Strings will leave his deepest mark on the musical world, not lyrical composition, necessarily. But compared to Billy’s last album Home, this album doesn’t effort to find an ethereal hole in the Universe to jump through. It focuses more on just delivering quality bluegrass songs that work all unto themselves to tell a story or convey a message, and offer a space for stellar instrumentation. Granted, Billy’s last album Home also won a Grammy, and was no shabby effort. But Renewal is where Billy Strings and company feel like they got the approach to how to make a studio record more right. And hey, it will probably win a Grammy too.
Don’t worry, if straight ahead bluegrass just generally isn’t enough to hold your attention span or what you come to the spring of Billy Strings to drink of, songs like “Heartbeat of America” and “Hide and Seek” have that other-worldly and imaginative space jam aspect you crave. But Renewal also has songs like “Know It All” and “Secrets” that start off the record, and are just damn good bluegrass songs. Tracks like “Hellbender” and “This Old World” help ground the album in bluegrass traditions so it’s not so abstruse to be inaccessible. And despite the flattery of Billy’s musical acumen being mostly centered on his guitar playing, his voice is custom fit for high harmony bluegrass, and is an strong asset all unto itself.
Country music is so often misunderstood by the outside world as a simple and limiting form of expression. What’s great about the bluegrass discipline—and what Billy Strings is illustrating for the masses—is that bluegrass can be the springboard to explore the very highest reaches of what is humanly possible in music. But it is also a way to speak straight to the heart of the common people. On Renewal, Billy Strings does both, and in a way that doesn’t just flatter bluegrass in a way that keeps it relevant to the modern ear, but in a way that defines the very essence of the genre in the modern era.
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