Four out of Five Stars
It’s taken Billy Strings less than eight years to rise to the highest levels of praise, credence, and accomplishment. In that relatively short time, he’s released five albums and won practically every award imaginable, including a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, Breakthrough Artist of the Pandemic at this year’s Pollstar Awards, a nomination for Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association, and kudos as Guitar Player of the Year and New Artist of the Year courtesy of the International Bluegrass Music Awards.
Not a bad tally for someone who’s yet to mark his 30th birthday.
Those accolades will likely continue in the wake of his new release, Renewal, another stirring mix of vibrant bluegrass, hardscrabble balladry, and the kind of emphatic exposition on which his reputation rests. Produced by Jonathan Wilson, a respected independent artist himself and the man behind the boards for the likes of Conor Oberst, Roger Waters, and Father John Misty, and featuring an accredited group of ace backing musicians, it’s a rugged set of songs—some 16 in total—all of which belie Strings’ relative youth and any sort of newcomer status. The bluegrass tunes in particular show off his deft picking on both banjo and guitar, with songs such as “Know It All,” “Secrets,” “Hide and Seek,” and “Red Daisy” conveying a rapid-fire, hard-scrabble approach that easily keeps pace with even the most seasoned players, both veteran and contemporary. Strings’ vocals share a weathered resilience that has him sounding well beyond his years, especially on the dryly determined sounding “Hellbender,” “Leaders” and “This Old World,” songs that could have been mined from the far realms of Appalachia and passed on through the ages.
Suffice it to say, it’s a seasoned sound that taps into the essence of Americana.
Still, for all his songwriter prowess, it’s Strings’ remarkable instrumental ability that shines overall, particularly on the aforementioned “Hide and Seek” and “Secrets,” and so many other entries such as “Heartbeat of America” and “Ice Bridges.” Each is marked by extended passages that are literally breathtaking at every turn. It’s easy to imagine the rapturous reaction they’re certain to receive in concert, where this dazzling dexterity can’t help but entice his audience.
Calling Renewal a remarkable work doesn’t even begin to describe its full extent of prowess and sheer ability. In a word, Strings simply soars.
Photo: Jesse Faatz