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Billy Strings

Home – 2019 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Billy Strings

As befits the reigning IBMA Guitar Player of the Year, Billy Strings' second full release, "Home" displays his guitar-playing range. But, there is much more to the fellow that rages through live shows, and those qualities are displayed on "Home."

Strings (born William Apostol) lives up to his nom de guerre. Electric, acoustic 6- or 12-string guitar provide the ingredients for his work, and his guitar work is mostly, although not always, delivered at a breakneck tempo, even when the underlying song is more measured. Strings is a preternaturally gifted player who commands his instrument.

But Strings' songwriting on "Home" lands with equal force. He wields a strong pen to offer up stirring imagery through his lyrics. Strings wrote all of the songs, some in collaboration with the estimable Jon Weisberger. It's the songwriting that reveals Strings' artistic power.

The material is rich, but never straightforward. Strings can write a ballad, but also, consonant with his age (mid-20s), there's a social consciousness that is absent, or just not important, to many bluegrass artists. You know where this dude stands. Here, "Home" shines.

In "Watch It Fall," Strings offers a hopeless plea:
While chunks the size of Delaware are falling off the poles
Our heads are buried in the sand, our leaders dug the holes
Like junkies hooked on fossil fuels heading for withdrawal
How long until there's nothin' left at all?

The truth in this is unavoidable, the imagery stark. Or on open track "Taking Water":
Neighborhoods left to decay
People died or walked away
Nowhere left for them to stay
And we just look the other way

"Home" pulls few punches and lands a bunch of them. Strings has some personal beefs, mostly with people whose motives are dark or absent of soul, and the release ably explores these from his point of view ("Hollow Heart" and "Enough To Leave").

Strings' work is layered in many ways: the smart lyrics, the unchallenged playing, but also the fulsome sound of the pieces. There's an orchestral sensibility to some of the longer-form songs. Although the form is bluegrass, with ample space for guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo fills, the whole is much greater than these individual pieces, and that's what makes "Home" a strong work: inspired by bluegrass form and tradition, but fully formed as a tightly-strung tapestry of sound.