By Scott McLennan
This is an amazing follow-up to Billy Strings’s Grammy-winning Home album.
Renewal, Billy Strings (Rounder)
Bluegrass music is definitely having a moment; Sturgill Simpson and John Hiatt leaned into the high lonesome sound on recent records, while banjo ace Bela Fleck returned to a purely bluegrass sound for his latest project.
But guitarist Billy Strings, the genre’s brightest new star, is having an even bigger moment and transcending set labels altogether with “Renewal,” his third full-length release.
The record is cohesive in its sound, which is rooted in acoustic instruments, but the players are also pushing forward into interesting musical terrain, places where country music overlaps with folk balladry and mandolins and fiddles brush up against the dynamics of rock ’n’ roll.
This commitment to subtlety is inspired by the wonderful material produced from earlier progressive bluegrass movements, from the likes of New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, the David Grisman Quintet and many others. And, atop that earlier base, Strings brings to a table a sound that reflects the musical sensibilities of a band leader who got his start playing heavy metal as a kid, can do a mean cover of Post Malone’s pop hit “Circles,” has become a bit of Jerry Garcia disciple, and recently popped off collaborations with rapper RMR, indie rocker Fences, and bluegrass legend Del McCoury. All of these tracks were separately released singles, none of which are among the 16 songs that made it on to Renewal.
Add to this creative fury as much touring as humanly possible around slowly lifting pandemic restrictions — and now an amazing follow-up to his Grammy-winning Home album.
The songwriting on Renewal is tight and varied, blending personal introspection occasioned by a bit of heartbreak with other tunes that offer broader commentary about the shambles that is the modern world. And, for good measure, there are a few tales of crooked characters, sort of a Strings hallmark going back to early fan favorite “Dust in a Baggie.”
If Renewal needs a tag line, you could probably use this line from “This Old World”: “I’m a witness to the fight between the darkness and the light.”
Some of the record is downright harrowing — “Nothing’s Working” oozes desperation. But in other spots — particularly the ebullient instrumentals “Ice Bridges” and “Running the Route” — the music summons joy.
Strings is at his most emotionally rich on “In the Morning Light,” a delicate meditation on love that is poignant without turning maudlin.
“Hellbender” and “The Fire On My Tongue” are roguish, hangdog campfire tales. “Fire Line” comes across as a vivid and damning critique of the contemporary political and social climates: “It’s a poison dream/ Keeps me running through the night/ I’ll take it all and then some more/ By the dawning of the sickly morning light.”
A lot of the record’s songs, though, bounce between contrasting moods. “Heartbeat of America” is anxious as well as ominous. “Secrets” is damning yet somehow hopeful.
Throughout, Strings is the confident ringleader, singing and playing guitar with bravado and ingenuity. But Renewal succeeds on the collaborative strength of Strings and his bandmates as well as a few other guest performers. Fiddle player John Mailander in particular is a marvelously dynamic presence throughout the record, adding a sonic element that is right at home, yet typically not heard in Strings’ live sets. (Strings would be wise to kidnap Mailander from Bruce Hornsby’s Noisemakers.)
Strings’ bandmates — mandolin player Jarrod Walker, banjo player Billy Failing, and bassist Royal Masat — are all masterful, passing around solos with the guitarist. The trio also intuitively know when to lock into a hardcore bluegrass groove (“Red Daisy”) or blast off into space (“Hide and Seek”). Both of those songs are album highlights, but for completely different reasons.
It’s this multifariousness that makes Renewal so successful; this is a work that offers many paths from a central starting point. The more you travel through the record, the more you see how interconnected the songs are, as well as just how distinctive each is.
Billy Strings is set to perform in Boston on Nov. 17 at the Boch Center-Wang Theatre.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.