Though music journalists — and dictionaries — generally consider “song” and “tune” to be synonyms, real-deal pickers and players make a distinction: “Songs” have lyrics; “tunes” don’t. In some bluegrass and old-time circles, though, the lyrics feel like afterthoughts, just easy ways to turn fast-picking tunes into sing-able songs whether or not anyone in the group can actually sing on pitch.
Not so with Billy Strings and his new album, Home. Here, he makes room for both — well-written songs and picking-packed tunes — sometimes within the same few minutes of musicality. That balance is not at all surprising. After all, Strings grew up on bluegrass, but discovered a love of rock & roll during his teen years. With his deep talent, he has forged his wide tastes into a singular sound.
Right out of the gate, he bridges the gap on “Taking Water,” a lively bluegrass number sure to please even the trad purists while also courting the young folkies. A couple tracks later, on “Running,” he cuts loose, trading and doubling runs with banjo ace Billy Failing. No matter your musical preferences, you can’t listen to this thing and not be impressed.
On “Away from the Mire” and “Home,” Strings stretches all the way out, letting things push toward the eight-minute mark. Folding in electric guitar, ethereal effects, unexpected instrumentation, sly arrangements, and cutting strings, the extended pieces really showcase the vision Strings has for his music. This ain’t your mama’s bluegrass, however much the album-closing, gospel-infused “Freedom” may leave you feeling like it is.
Even so, with 14 tracks to choose from, Home really does have something for everyone, and it really does feel like Billy Strings has found his place. It’s an impressive effort, to be sure, from the wunderkind from Michigan who says he learned how to play from bluegrass, but learned how to perform from heavy metal.