Editor’s Note: This article was written by freelance journalist, and long-time Saving Country Music reader/commenter Matthew Bashioum.
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For one weekend last February, Billy Strings took over Music City with a trifecta of sold-out concerts. It wasn’t the first two shows at the expansive Bridgestone Arena, but the third at the intimate Mother Church of Country Music that would go on to be a landmark event in bluegrass music history.
Trading in his casual, metal rock appearance for a crisp all-white traditional bluegrass suit complete with a silver bowtie and off-white cowboy hat—with bandmates in matching powder blue suits—Strings delivered a blazing, ambitious 35-song traditional bluegrass set that made even the staunchest of stalwart gatekeepers of the genre stand up and take notice. The Ryman show would later be aired on PBS and it has become the new gold standard of bluegrass performances for the next generation.
There on that hallowed stage, or “ground zero for bluegrass music” as Strings described it, he paid homage to his childhood idols and the music his adoptive father taught him to play at an early age. Strings always incorporates traditional bluegrass songs into his nightly sets, but this was the most expansive collection of his influences that included songs by Larry Sparks, The Dillards, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, and Jimmy Martin.
However, when it comes to Billy Strings most influential bluegrass idols, three stand out and get idolized the most by him on stage.
William Lee Apostol’s most profound memory and proudest moment of his life occurred when after countless frustrating sessions with his adoptive father, Terry Barber, 6-year-old Billy finally mastered the rhythm part of Doc Watson’s “Beaumont Rag” enabling his dad to play lead when jamming together, instantly earning him the moniker “Billy Strings” from his aunt.
Strings declares in interviews that before Doc Watson, “guitar was mostly a rhythm instrument … fiddle, banjo, and mandolin would take the breaks …. Doc came along and said, ‘I can play the same notes as the fiddle or mandolin on the guitar and play the solo on a bluegrass song’.” Playing fiddle tunes on the guitar gave birth to the flatpicking style that defined bluegrass music. It’s the style that Strings most identifies with when playing on stage.
During his childhood tutorial of Doc Watson, Strings also learned to master playing the banjo clawhammer style—a down-picking style in which the hand assumes a claw-like shape, striking the strings by the motion of the hand at the wrist rather than a flicking motion by the finger. “Shady Grove: The Music of Doc Watson featuring Billy Strings and His Band” from The High Sierra Music Festival in 2017 is an excellent recording featuring a 25-year-old Billy Strings playing an hour-long tribute to Doc Watson including a stunning version of “The Cuckoo’ clawhammer style.
For Strings, it begins and ends with Doc Watson.
Billy Strings credits his High and Lonesome Sound vocal style to Ralph Stanley. In interviews, Strings points to the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love” as the prime example of this emotional, powerful, earthly vocal style coupled with high Appalachian tenor harmonies.
You can hear this High and Lonesome Sound technique perfectly executed with his dad on his original song “These Memories of You” from his album Turmoil & Tinfoil and even in the most modern of Strings compositions during the chorus of “Secrets” from Renewal.
Billy Strings gets his experimental and progressive nature from studying Tony Rice who left the range to pioneer the improvisational newgrass (or spacegrass) subgenres which drew upon pop and rock sources. Strings said Rice used “masculine power chords to change bluegrass guitar” and he “worked around the fret board like no one else.”
Strings instrumental “Escanaba” (the fiddle of Alex Hargreaves inexplicably transforms into a violin) and the song “Leaders” from Renewal are two original compositions heavily influenced by Tony Rice’s progressive, jazz influenced style.
Last March at Doc Watson’s 100th Birthday celebration in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Billy Strings played Tony Rice’s 1935 Martin D-28 58957 considered to be the Holy Grail of bluegrass guitars for being played on some of the most influential albums at the time. The guitar had sat idle for a decade, including since Rice’s death in 2020. It’s last public performance had been at Rice’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame induction.
The herringbone guitar has a wild and crazy history of ownership (dating back to Clarence White) and repairs (surviving a flood, being ran over by a touring van, and being shot). When Rice first played it backstage at a radio event in 1960, he recalled, “the action was so high it was almost impossible … but some connection may have been forged that day.”
After an hour-long meeting with the family, Rice’s widow, Pam, suggested Strings play the guitar that night. From the stage Strings suggested “let’s listen to this thing talk a little bit” and warmed up the strings before launching into a tremendous version Jerry Reed’s “The Likes of Me.”
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Billy Strings’ current fall tour rolled into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for two nights on December 12th and 13th. Strings has never played the same show twice, and both shows couldn’t have been more different in composition, delivery, and appearance.
On Tuesday (12-12), Strings wore a psychedelic button down shirt, nice jeans, and combed hair. He was rather reserved from the stage and played it pretty much from the book. On Wednesday, he appeared to have just come down from a deer stand wearing an orange camo hat with a buck in the center, T-shirt, and jeans that could have been on the tour bus floor 45 minutes earlier. He was a little unhinged, twirling his hat far above his head as he took the stage, and he wasn’t afraid to drop a couple F-bombs and interact more the crowd.
Both nights Strings played his Frankensteind-out Brazilian Rosewood Thompson Dreadnought. The most important feature on this guitar is the switch at the lower corner—an object of much hate by some. It switches between a kk magnetic pickup and a transducer pickup. In the most elementary terms, when the switch is down, an organic acoustic sound is being transmitted through the speakers. When the switch is up, unearthly distorted and amped electrical guitar sounds are made. Strings is also equipped with a massive Taurus pedalboard to create “gargantuan drone notes and massive sub-bass lines” and more battery packs on his guitar strap than an astronaut on a spacewalk.
Strings often likes to transition through songs without a traditional break, skipping the ceremonial grandeur. One noteworthy block of continuous songs from first night started off with the brooding, survival anthem, “Fire Line,” which seamlessly transitioned into the instrumental “Thirst Mutilator,” then into a salty, defiant cover of John Hartford’s “I’m Still Here” (the first of two Hartford covers of the evening). Towards the end of the song, Strings changed the lyrics to “well you may not like the Monkeeeees, but Billy Failings does…” and on cue Billy’s banjo player started picking the notes to “Last Train to Clarksville,” which transitioned back to “Thirst Mutilator”, and eventually ended with a feisty romp of his latest “single” from the Hunger Games soundtrack “Cabin Song.”
The highlight of the first night occurred during the second set when the airy, ’70s AM jaunt “While I’m Waiting Here” gave way to an epic 20-minute fan favorite marathon of “Meet Me at the Creek.” Twirling his hair in circles like a heavy metal superstar while moving between all three microphones drawing the crowd in on this feverish trip, Strings set up one the of most epic instrumental breaks.
Jarrod Walker on mandolin and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle played out their best versions of the flowing Maple River. Walker’s mandolin was a babbling swift early spring powered by melting snow; Hargreaves on fiddle was a rapid, overpowering creek fueled by a heavy storm. Both creeks meet to form Strings overflowing, flooding heavy current guitar.
Strings then flips the switch, and everyone is saved from the flood, elevated above the clouds to a foreign galaxy as Strings powers out crunchy b-string notes and artificial, spacelike sounds on his guitar and pedals. Billy Failings and his banjo enters and awakes us from this induced dreamlike state and “everything comes crashin’ to the ground” to a huge finale.
Affording an opportunity for everyone to catch their breath, Strings then played a new love song, the subtle and hushed, “Be Your Man.” Then he kicked things back into high gear with Doc Watson’s “Streamline Cannon Ball,” followed by his ode to all Watson murder ballads “My Alice” (another new song).
On the second night and second set, Strings and the boys were churning out a perfect spirited rendition of The Stanley Brothers’ “The Lonesome River” when he uncharacteristically missed his mark, stood silent and confused while the band continued to play. He then smiled and said into the microphone, “Hi, Dad!” The band circled around and picked Strings up. When the song was done, Strings told everyone, “I sort of forgot what the hell I was doing because I saw my dad down there. Not actually down there, but on someone’s phone. And he’s the one that taught me that song. It almost looked like he was crying or something. I don’t know.”
The special bond Strings and his dad share over flatpicking the bluegrass classics together throughout the years is incredible and evident on their passion project Me/ And/Dad. Those endless jam sessions now afford us the rare opportunity to experience bluegrass music in its most natural and unbridled state as it did the final night during a 3-song encore with all five players surrounding around one microphone (Strings referred to it as a “can”) often tripping over each other to deliver a brilliant, heavenly traditional acoustic set.
John K. Pee is credited for the song “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” but the way they utilize often overlooked bassist Royal Masat’s deep vocals on this song to cut through the High and Lonesome harmonies, they were paying homage to the Oak Ridge Boys rendition and Richard Sterban.
The next song also featured Masat’s playful deep vocals and featured some fine pickin’ with the playful tongue-in-cheek “If Your Hair’s Too Long (There’s Sin in Your Heart).” Ray Stevens and The Glory Bugles both recorded silly, over-the-top versions of this song. However, Strings and the boys play it closer to damnation even though the line “You’ll live a life of fear and dread if you listen to the Grateful Dead” drew a joyous response from the crowd.
And nothing would be more fitting than closing out 2 nights of music (5+ hours) than the uberly talented ensemble pickin’ Doc Watson’s “Ridin’ That Midnight Train” as 9,000 fans feverishly stomped and clapped along.
12.12.23 Pittsburgh, PA
Done Gone (A.C. Eck Robertson)
Hello City Limits (Harley “Red” Allen)
Fire Line >
I’m Still Here (John Hartford) >
Thirst Mutilator >
Stone Walls And Steel Bars (The Stanley Brothers)
Away From the Mire
Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down (Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs)
Long Forgotten Dream
All Fall Down (John Hartford)
Takin’ a Slow Train (Larry Sparks)
While I’m Waiting Here >
Meet Me at the Creek
Love Like Mine
Streamlined Cannonball (Doc Watson)
Run Down (Jeff Austin) >
Kentucky Mandolin (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys)
Enough to Leave
Blues Stay Away from Me (The Delmore Brothers)
Come Down the Mountain Katy Daly
12.13.23 Pittsburgh, PA
Bound To Ride (The Stanley Brothers)
The Fire on My Tongue >
Taking Water >
Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) (Bob Dylan)
Highway Hypnosis >
Farwell Blues (Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs) >
Bill Cheatham (Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs)
Must Be Seven >
She Makes My Love Come Rolling Down (The Doc Watson Family) >
Hide And Seek
The Lonesome River (The Stanley Brothers)
On The Line >
Train 45 (The Stanley Brothers)
Love and Regret
Home of the Red Fox (Bill Emerson) >
Drifter’s Escape (Bob Dylan)
Everything’s The Same
(encore– one mic)
Standing in the Need of Prayer (Oak Ridge Boys)
If Your Hair’s Too Long (There’s Sin in Your Heart) (Glory Bugles)
Ridin’ That Midnight Train (Doc Watson)