When you think of bluegrass music, what comes to mind? Is it the stringed instruments of banjos and mandolins played by old men in a juke joint? Is it the music that defines the rolling hills and mountains of Kentucky and Virginia? Is it the outdated type of music that influenced the beginnings of country music as we know it today?
There’s many people out there who would agree with all of the above. But I learned this past Thursday evening that Bluegrass music, or at the very least, the future of bluegrass music, is now at the hands of Billy Strings, a 29 year old out of Michigan, and the three other musicians that make up his band. There is no chance that the future of Bluegrass music will die out anytime soon. With a run of sold out shows for Billy Strings, including two at the Palace Theatre, Bluegrass is thriving more than it ever has before.
Like many types of music, there’s plenty of boundaries of where a specific genre can or cannot go. The difference between a bluegrass band and a country or folk band, for instance, is the mere presence of a drummer. There are likely plenty of bluegrass diehards out there who wouldn’t call this bluegrass music, but Strings seems to give little care to their concerns and most of these boundaries. String’s music is a melting pot of songs that are not just bluegrass songs, but songs that have bluegrass roots. And with a signature of his shows being the improvisational performance of a lot of these songs, The venn diagram between bluegrass bands and jam bands seem to continue to grow much larger, and encapsulates a larger fanbase. It’s clear that Billy Strings has a big focus on the quality of the live show. Many people in the crowd seemed to come from all over the country. A couple next to me drove all day from Indianapolis. Another had a shorter drive, but still significant, coming all the way from Sioux Falls. String’s last performance here at the Turf Club was just a couple years ago, And now he has a Grammy under his belt and people driving cross country to see his sold out show tonight in one of the largest venues in St. Paul. I’ve seriously underestimated the bluegrass crowd.
With no opener, Strings started the first of two sets with String’s original Fire on My Tongue Which transitioned easily into Dan Tyminski’s Ernest T. Grass and transitioned again to String’s Must Be Seven. The first pause in the music comes at just under 20 minutes after the end of those three songs. “We’re so glad to be here’’ Billy said to the crowd while tuning. “I’m glad we’re shaking off the nerves a little bit. Starting to feel a lot more alive now than I did earlier. Thank you folks so much for coming out” The set continued with more music, including a cover of Larry Spark’s Blue Virginia Blues and a rare cover of the Tony Rice Unit tune, Manzanita. The end of the first set also featured covers (The first set itself only featured 4 Billy String’s originals) and ended with The Stanley Brothers Bound to Ride transitioned by a solo from bassist Royal Masat to String’s Heartbeat of America.
The second set of music kicked off with Taking Water, Transitioning into Ice Bridges and In The Morning Light. While String’s acoustic guitar solos were anticipated throughout both sets, The skill of his band members was just as good. His touring band members covered the rest of the stringed instruments out there, Billy Failing (banjo, vocals), Royal Masat (bass, vocals), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin, vocals, guitar) all took turns with solos in nearly every song.
Perhaps the best part of the night came during the transition after Love and Regret towards the end of the second set, where the opening notes of Wharf Rat, a Grateful Dead tune, elicited the loudest applause of the night, and many of the people around me literally began hugging each other. While many in the audience may not be a bluegrass purist, we know a dead song when we hear one, and to have Strings extend this song to a Grateful Dead-starved Minnesota was a real treat, and left many people around me amazed, if they weren’t already in someone’s arms. With the flip of a switch on his acoustic guitar, Stings turned up the gain and made it sound like an overdriven electric guitar to solo with, crossing into the jam band territory Ive mentioned before. We ended the night with a two song encore, a solo vocal rendition from Strings of And Am I Born to Die? By Doc Watson, and Long Forgotten Dream, which was performed by his full band.
There’s not many bands ide consider driving cross-country for, but i didn’t have any hesitation to add Billy Strings to my list. Regardless of what preconceived notions you have regarding bluegrass music, Billy Strings is worth a listen. Many people around me mention they don’t seem to enjoy modern country music these days, saying it’s not like it used to be. However, What they’re after is bluegrass music. They just dont know it yet. Billy Strings, and the style of music that is uniquely his, is a great chance to know the future of this genre.