The highly anticipated sophomore album from psychedelic progressive bluegrass pioneer, Billy Strings, arrived when the clock struck midnight on September 27th, 2019. Two years after the release of his debut album, Turmoil and Tinfoil, which turned the bluegrass community upside down, the 14-track expedition through bluegrass, rock, and psychedelia dubbed Home landed just hours after it was announced that Billy would be named guitar player and new artist of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMA).
“Taking Water” opens the album with a dark voyage through a bleak and desolate world of introspection. Strings and co-writer Jon Weisberg have the listener turning the lens on themselves, asking, “Where is the world headed, are we doing enough, is it too late to try to fix the darkness we see?”
A song that’s already taken flight in the live performance setting as a 10+ minute departure, “Away from the Mire,” portrays a deep cutting tear in the fabric of a relationship between two people who were once incredibly close. From the lyrics, we gain a sense of not only the intensity of how a friend’s actions can linger inside our minds, but also the understanding that the pursuit of hanging onto that anger will be meaningless in the end.
The title track of the album, “Home,” completely abandons any sort of bluegrass acoustic mold. With added string players, percussion, and all sorts of kaleidoscopic effects, it sounds as if an aging Dewey Cox took a crack at producing Bela Fleck’s Tales From The Acoustic Planet. That’s not to downplay it in the slightest bit, as it is certainly a powerful and poignant piece of music that I can’t wait to see how they bring to life in the live setting.
The melody of “Watch It Fall” sounds like something straight out of a 30-year-old Hot Rize album, except instead of singing about forsaken love, Strings brings social and political problems to the forefront of the song. Alluding directly to issues like climate change and corruption, Strings does not shy away from diving in and examining our indifferent ability to sit idly by while the world falls apart.
“Highway Hypnosis,” co-written with legend Ronnie McCoury, is a fast-driving scorcher of a tune telling what it’s like to be a true road warrior. With online streaming decimating album sales for bands and artists across the board of all musical genres, young players are forced into a rigorous touring schedule full of extremely long drives, in an attempt to generate revenue and stay relevant. Strings showcases his furious picking chops in the guitar solo by quoting a classic Tony Rice lick before the band fades into a sedated jam muffled by studio effects, which do an excellent job simulating the inside of a car on the highway before the band bursts back into the main theme of the song with fury.
Powerfully emotional and beautifully designed songs like “Must Be Seven” and “Enough To Leave” give this album meaning while tripped out explorations like “Guitar Peace” and the deep-rooted sounding traditionals like “Hollow Heart” and “Freedom” make it complete. With Home, the bluegrass and jam communities are given yet another staggering volume of great material that will undoubtedly be transformed into seriously outlandish live journeys by a 27-year-old guy from Lansing, Michigan.
The jam scene has been starved for something like this as long as it’s existed—a bluegrass band that’s more than capable on their instruments, comes out with consistently good songs, and delivers deep and explosive jams. Seeing the recent breakneck burst of Strings’ popularity is somewhat bittersweet for fans. There’s just something emotionally confusing about rooting for someone for a few years and then being shut out of a multi-night run at a 1600 person venue after tickets have only been on sale for merely minutes.
While Billy has been consistently growing faster than all the bands around him, even just last year, it seemed like we were in on some sort of secret. There was a certain profound connection you had with other fans. When you met someone and discovered they were as passionate as you were, wherever you were, everything around you faded into the background and you fell deep into conversation. It felt like you were in an episode of The Sopranos sitting in a smoke-filled backroom, discussing who to whack next.
The secret is out now and we couldn’t be happier for Billy and his amazingly talented band: Royal, Jarrod and Billy Failing. A really new feeling comes over me when I think about the future of this band: You’re a part of something big that’s growing at a speed no one can control. I’m going to get viciously roasted for this, but it feels like what I imagine being a Phish fan in the 90s was like. When I listen to Home, I think about all the great shows I’ve seen, the memories made with friends already and all the ones to come with this band.