In the minute or two where we seemed to have left Covid behind I got to attend some long-awaited concerts. Actual, indoor, real-life musical performances. One of them was by a marvel named Billy Strings, a 29-year-old bluegrass guitar wizard whose show was thrilling, celebratory, and as a minimalist but enthralling spectacle, probably unlike anything I’d seen before.
The event was at Portland, Maine’s vibey State Theater, a refurbished, 1,870 capacity venue with historic Art Deco aesthetics, excellent acoustics, and a nice, comfortable feel – but not too nice. And when Strings took the stage the sell-out crowd of youthful hipsters and grizzled Deadheads was aroar with a fervid and prolonged reaction that might’ve seemed more in place from some teenage girls glimpsing Harry Styles. Strings held an acoustic guitar and was flanked by his band, players of a mandolin, banjo, and standup bass. That’s it. Yet that simple sounding acoustic quartet managed to put on a marvelously big show; a riveting and wildly entertaining showcase of old-style bluegrass virtuosity mixed with rapid-fire improvisational jamming and some boundary-pushing modernity. And that’s quite a lot.
Billy Strings, you see, was introduced from as early as a toddler to the Appalachian roots of bluegrass traditionalists like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury and Doc Watson, but in his teens he became enthralled with rock and metal icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, the Grateful Dead and Black Sabbath. That combustible combination of influences, together with an obsessive drive for music to provide his escape from a childhood home besieged by drugs and tragedy, forged an unlikely prodigy: a breakneck guitar picker with dazzling, perhaps unprecedented range.
Strings’ innovative and idiosyncratic skillset has been evident since his emergence in the music industry back in 2013. And it was on full display throughout two long, rousing sets in Portland (the first of two consecutive sold-out shows) in which he cycled effects-driven guitar solos with those of his marvelous mandolin and banjo wielding bandmates, while contributing to tight, three-part vocal harmonies and displaying a winning, unpretentious stage presence underscored by a stream of feverish, seemingly involuntary guitar faces (as one commenter noted: it looks like he doesn’t know what his fingers are going to do and is pleasantly surprised at the results).
In a recent, lengthy feature on him, the New York Times labeled Strings as “bluegrass’s new transgressive star.” And Bela Fleck, the veteran maestro of bluegrass, jazz and fusion, and likely the closest to a crossover star of the genre in the past quarter century, said of Strings: “This music needs a fresh jolt once in a while from someone who comes in from a different angle, and Billy is that lightning rod.” Strings’ latest album, Renewal, his fifth, was released in late September of 2021 and made immediate impact on multiple Billboard charts – including rock, country, folk, and peaking at #1 on bluegrass (his second consecutive album to do so). Just over a month later he served notice that the success wasn’t exactly going to his head. On the morning of November 8th he pulled into the parking lot at his former elementary school in Muir, Michigan followed by a U-Haul truck filled with exactly 208 acoustic guitars, in varying age-appropriate sizes, having arranged with the school’s music teacher – the same one currently as when he had attended – to give one to every student at the school. One by one, each kid in each class filed out and was presented with a brand-new Fender guitar by Billy Strings, an out-of-the-blue musical opportunity provided by someone now readily considered one of the best musicians of his generation. “The guitar has taken me places that I could only dream of,” Strings was quoted as saying afterwards. “My hope is that one of these guitars does the same thing for one of these kids.”
“I went to this school when I was your age. I started playing guitar, and the guitar has always been a really cool friend of mine,” Strings announced that morning to the students as they began their surprised and excited procession. “Even when times were really sad, a guitar was my friend. So I just wanted to give you guys some guitars that you can take home with you. Everybody gets one.” Quite a magnanimous present, indeed: the gift of music, no strings attached.