Coming off winning a Grammy for his stunning 2019 release Home, plus an IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” award in Raleigh last October, Billy Strings, in many ways, defines bluegrass music in the 21st Century for a multitude of fans. The subject of an in-depth portrait in The New York Times that plumbed the depths of his childhood in a home of hard drug abusers before finding guitar as an escape route, Strings has walked through the fire to emerge as the titular head of a new psychedelic acoustic music wave that draws as much inspiration from Ken Kesey as from Kenny Baker.
Renewal continues the acid-washed soundscapes and pulsing tribal rhythms from Home that won so many converts to his new sound. Much of the music and lyrics here were composed by the band during an extended retreat to a secluded cabin, where the musicians experimented with various psychedelics in an effort to expand their musical boundaries. But much like the Beatles’ drug-infused Magical Mystery Tour failed to recapture the rich creativity of Sgt. Pepper’s, much of Renewal falls short of his very best songwriting like “Watch It Fall,” “Meet Me At The Creek,” or the O Henry-like ending twist to “While I’m Waiting Here.” Still, his fanbase will love tunes like “Hellbender,” and “Red Daisy,” which punches in the same weight class as McCoury’s legendary “Vincent Black Lightning” cover. And his thunderous “Heartbeat of America” resounds like a bluegrass “Born To Run.”
One clear area of improvement is Strings’ singing, which after a return to non-stop touring and live performances is stronger, much more mature and expressive emotionally than ever before here. Doesn’t hurt that he gets to sing with Del McCoury and learn from the standard bearer, either.
Billy Strings is certainly a musical flashpoint for many in bluegrass today, just as the music of bluegrass revolutionaries like Sam Bush and David Grisman, Flatt & Scruggs, John Duffey, John Hartford and even Monroe were when they started.
Renewal, like his previous two CDs, gives Strings a platform to explore bluegrass music’s endless creativity and raw power via a pedalboard and a finely tuned acoustic Dreadnought funneled into a raucous tube amp before rebounding back to his acoustic roots. Others may prefer the dazzling virtuosity Bela Fleck and his uber-talented ensemble (which included Strings on several cuts) achieved without electronics or overt artificial enhancements on My Bluegrass Heart. But bluegrass is richer for both artists’ vast imaginations and vivid musical gifts.