A Rupp Roaring Weekend: Billy Strings' Bluegrass Mastery

Article Contributed by Michael Stegner | Published on Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Last weekend, Billy Strings delivered two sold-out concerts at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. The weekend was a full-fledged celebration of bluegrass music in the state where it all began decades ago with Bill Monroe.

Never missing the chance to educate the audience on the bluegrass legends that came before him, Strings filled the setlist on Friday night with several traditional bluegrass tunes and covers, many of which referenced the state of Kentucky.

As the two-night run kicked off with an original Billy Strings tune, "Hellbender," the audience erupted as the opening line of the song echoed throughout the arena. “In the cold early morning in the hills of Kentucky, I awoke to the sound of the rain.” There was no shortage of proud Kentuckians eager to welcome the bluegrass virtuoso back to their home state.

Keeping the momentum going, the second song to come from the stage was the band’s biggest hit to date, "Dust in a Baggie." Smiles and dance moves spread through the floor and seats of Rupp Arena as nearly everyone sang along to the familiar words.

Rupp Arena | Lexington, Kentucky

Strings and his bandmates, Billy Failing (banjo), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), Jarrod Walker (mandolin), and Royal Masat (bass), continued with several original compositions, including "Cabin Song" from the soundtrack of the newest "Hunger Games" film, the instrumental "Thirst Mutilator," and "Taking Water."

Drawing inspiration from outside the bluegrass genre, a unique and tasteful cover of Mother Love Bone’s song "Crown of Thorns" was followed by "Tentacle Dragon (Revenge of the)" from Béla Fleck’s Grammy-winning album "My Bluegrass Heart," which Fleck co-wrote with Strings in 2022.

After noticing a fan with a sign that read "My Rose of Kentucky," Strings confirmed that the band knew how to play the song before diving right into the Bill Monroe classic. If there is anything that Kentuckians take more seriously than bluegrass, it would be college basketball, and being at the home of the University of Kentucky basketball, they continued to weave the theme of the night into the show by diving right into another Kentucky song, this time Larry Sparks’ "Kentucky Girl."

The band kept a lot of the tunes from the first set tight and didn’t stray too far from the original recordings on their albums, but one of the highlights of the entire night came at the end of the first set when the band took the Danny Barnes song, "Pretty Daughter," which is typically a traditional-sounding bluegrass tune, and stretched it out for nearly twenty minutes. What started as a familiar bluegrass toe-tapper quickly became an amorphous musical journey into an entirely new genre.

Billy Strings | Rupp Arena

Strings and his talented bandmates have consistently managed to take audiences to new sonic territories using only the traditional stringed instruments that most bluegrass bands wield. Anyone at Rupp Arena that night who was seeing the band for the first time was treated to a fantastic example of their unique jamgrass style and improvisational abilities.

Somewhere in the middle of the psychedelia happening throughout the arena during "Pretty Daughter," mandolinist Jarrod Walker gave Bill Monroe his flowers, yet again, with an impressive rendition of his classic "Kentucky Mandolin," before the music led back to a fiery conclusion to "Pretty Daughter" to end the first set.

The crowd seemed a little surprised at the beginning of the second set to see Billy sitting alone on a stool on the lower section of the stage, holding a banjo rather than his trusty acoustic guitar. Strings must have recently decided to learn to pick some banjo songs and was proud to show off his new skills for his loyal fans as he hammered out the timeless "Crawdad Song."

As the crowd celebrated Billy’s performance on the banjo, the rest of the band returned to the stage and picked up right where they had left off, taking no time to find their improvisational stride. Jamming their way through a few more Billy Strings originals including "Know It All" and "Red Rocking Chair," the five-piece moved into a dazzling cover of Tony Rice’s "Likes of Me," which gave way to "Pyramid Country," an intense instrumental song that the band pushed into chaotic territories before emerging from the improvised section with a traditional cover of "How Mountain Girls Can Love" by The Clinch Mountain Boys and The Stanley Brothers.

Billy Strings | Lexington, KY

Ensuring that they honored as many aspects of bluegrass music as possible, the band stepped forward and crowded around a single microphone for an incredibly intimate acapella version of "Richard Petty," a song that Strings penned in honor of the deceased race car driver with the same name. The crowd, while enormous, stayed as silent as possible as they soaked up the beautiful vocal harmonies of the entire band.

“I just love bluegrass so much, man,” Billy told the crowd during a break in the music. He looked around the arena at the thousands of fans in attendance. “I’m so f***ing happy that you guys do too,” he laughed.

While remaining huddled around a single microphone, a final recognition of the father of bluegrass ignited the crowd as Hargreaves fired up his fiddle for Monroe’s quintessential bluegrass song, "Uncle Pen."

To wrap up the second set, the band returned to their respective places on stage and finished the show with a few more songs, highlighted by an intense and powerful performance of "Wargasm." At that point, all except Billy Strings left the stage, leaving him alone for a final acapella performance of "Am I Born to Die?"

Billy Strings | Rupp Arena

The band remained off stage for a brief moment while the cheering crowd demanded one more song. They quickly reemerged on stage to treat everyone to a cover of Jimmy Martin’s "Sophronie."

Billy Strings returned the following night for another sold-out night at Rupp Arena.

Set 1 "Hellbender" "Dust in a Baggie" "Be Your Man" "Thirst Mutilator >" "Cabin Song" "Crown of Thorns >" "Tentacle Dragon (Revenge of the)" "Taking Water" "Hollow Heart" "My Rose of Kentucky" "Kentucky Girl" "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor" "Pretty Daughter >" "Kentucky Mandolin >" "Pretty Daughter"

Set 2 "Crawdad Hole" (Billy on Banjo - solo) "Bronzeback" "Know it All" "Red Rocking Chair" "Likes of Me >" "Pyramid Country >" "How Mountain Girls Can Love" "Richard Petty" (Acapella - One Mic) "Uncle Pen" (One Mic) "Blues Stay Away From Me" "These Memories of You" "Wargasm" "Am I Born to Die?" (Acapella - Billy solo)

Encore "Sophronie"