Track By Track: Billy Strings ‘Home’
photo by Emily Butler
Billy Strings’ Home just received a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards. Here he discusses the record, in a Track By Track feature that originally appeared in the magazine just prior to Home‘s release. Last month Strings performed 6 nights at the Capitol Theatre, to help mark the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s celebrated run at the venue. He also penned the liner notes to GarciaLive 14 and he talks about Jerry Garcia here.
“Growing up, I played bluegrass first and foremost but, when I was a teenager, I listened to rock-and-roll and all sorts of different stuff. I even played in a metal band for a while,” Billy Strings recounts of the experiences that informed his new album, Home, as well as his dynamic live shows.
“It’s weird—I always say, ‘I learned how to play music by playing bluegrass with my dad, and I learned how to perform music in a metal band.’ I would play bluegrass around the house, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager and joined a metal band that I was actually onstage. That was a lot different—we were throwing our guitars everywhere and head-banging. The whole crowd felt like a mosh pit and it was just insane. That’s how I cut my teeth as far as performing and entertaining. So, even when I walk onstage with a bluegrass band now, I still try to bring that metal energy to it. When you come to the show, we’re a little bit more progressive, a little bit harder and a little bit more psychedelic than a traditional bluegrass show.”
Channeling those varied interests into a cohesive new record, Strings recorded Home just days after his sold-out, three-night New Year’s Eve run at Pontiac, Mich.’s Flagstar Strand Theater. The guitarist and his band, which also includes Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass) and Jarrod Walker (mandolin) decamped for Nashville’s Blackbird Studios to rejoin Glenn Brown, who produced Strings’ debut record, Turmoil & Tinfoil. A variety of guests contributed to the sessions, including Molly Tuttle, Jerry Douglas and John Mailander.
“We were on tour a lot playing shows and in middle of all that we put out Turmoil & Tinfoil,” Strings recalls. “Our fans really liked it and I felt like it was a creative success but I never thought about what it was going to do for us as a band. As it turned out, though, the record got a lot of press and all of a sudden we started seeing more people come out to our shows, which was wonderful and unexpected. But I was so focused on the art that I didn’t even really think about that stuff until it happened. Now with this one, we recorded Home back in January and it’s gonna come out in September. So while I’m real proud of it, I’m already thinking about the next one. That’s what keeps me energized.”
“Taking Water” was one of the songs that I wrote with my good friend Jon Weisberger. We’ve gotten together a bunch of times during the last year or so, and, every time we sit down, we get a song. I like collaborating with Jon—he’s a wonderful writer, and he has a deep knowledge of the bluegrass language. A lot of the time when I’m writing, I’m using that language and putting a modern twist on it.
I come from a small town, and I’ve traveled through a lot of places that are really desolate—just abandoned neighborhoods where homeless people live. I was thinking about Flint, Mich., and Detroit—there’s been bad water in Flint for years and they still haven’t fixed that—and thinking about all these people that are left behind by society. It’s just not cool.
Life is about love, and some people out there have got it really rough. Whenever I write, it seems like that stuff comes up a lot—small-town poverty and social issues.
Must Be Seven
I co-wrote this one with a friend of mine, Aaron Allen. I had most of this song penned already and I sent it to him, and he helped me with the last portion of it. He’s a good buddy, and we would get together on the internet, on a Google Doc, and I would write some and he’d write some back.
Molly Tuttle sang on this one. She came to the session while I was recording, just to take some photos with me for our gig at Newport Folk Festival. I ended up asking her if she would sing on the song and she said, “Hell, yeah!” So I taught her the part.
I had this guitar riff for a while. This is actually the second song I wrote with this riff because the first one didn’t work out. I felt that it was missing something; the subject matter didn’t really fit. So I took that riff and came up with this song.
It’s a hard thing to keep writing when I’m on tour so much. I’m really trying to focus on that, though. I’m working on my craft as a songwriter, working out that muscle. I’ve always been writing though and some of the songs on Home I’ve had for quite a while and some of them I wrote leading up to the recording session. That’s kind of the way Turmoil was too. So Home is a collection of songs that express where I am right now as an artist. It’s a snapshot.
Away From the Mire
A lot of these songs are very personal, even though they might seem vague. This song is about some really personal stuff between me and a family member. I wrote it down when I was pissed off. Sometimes when I get into an argument or I read something in a newspaper that pisses me off, I’ll just get my pen out and start writing about it.
I wrote “Home” during an exercise with my friend Lindsay Lou. She’d be at her house and I’d be at my house and, at nine o’clock in the morning, we’d say, “We’re going to write 10 songs today.” So I’d be at my house trying to write 10 songs by six o’clock to show Lindsay Lou. We tried this once or twice, and this was one that I actually ended up using. When I was writing it, I tuned my guitar to this weird tuning and I just started playing. I was picturing a cold little cabin. You’re in this cabin, the winter’s coming in and you can’t get the fire lit. I was just trying to create a little portrait with my words.
The other cool thing about this song is the arrangement that we did. We had some string players come in—cello and viola and violin—and there’s a backup vocalist. I’m pretty sure Glenn Brown, my producer and engineer, did some of his cool Buchla tricks on this.
Also, for my electric guitar solo on this, I’m using a guitar that my grandfather made in prison in the early ‘60s that I just restored. The guitar had been sitting in my grandma’s closet for years and it was in pieces. It wasn’t functioning, but I had it fully restored, and it’s a killer guitar now.
Watch It Fall
“What It Fall” is another song I wrote with Aaron Allen. When I wrote this one, it was about 5 a.m., and I was sitting in the parking lot of a hotel somewhere in Washington, maybe Seattle. My band was passed out, but I couldn’t sleep. I don’t really what I was doing, but an idea came to me while I was sitting out there and I wrote this song down. Then, I sent the demo that I made up to Aaron and we worked on it together until we got it.
We’ve been holding back a lot of the songs from Home until the album release, but this is one that we’ve been playing at concerts every once in a while. I feel like this song really speaks for itself. I don’t need to say any more because if you listen to it, you’ll know.
Long Forgotten Dream
I wrote this song when I was at an Airbnb during SXSW in 2018. Again, I was awake and my whole band was asleep, so I went outside and I played. The middle of the night, when everybody else is asleep, is a great time to write. There’s something about the way that the air feels outside at about five or six in the morning—the birds are just waking up, the sun’s just coming up and the grass is covered in dew. After not sleeping, I’m almost in this lucid state so I can spit out these words. I don’t always really know what I’m talking about, but it’s some cool-sounding stuff. So the lyrics to “Long Forgotten Dream” are a little bit different than the stuff I usually write. I feel like there’s a mystical kind of character to this song.
I wrote this song with my friend Ronnie McCoury and his son, Evan. I went over to Ronnie’s house and he had the first couple of lyrics penned out: “I’m burning, I’m smoking.” He said to me: “Man, I’m writing a song with Billy Strings, I want it to be white hot—I mean burning hot.” So it had to be a fast bluegrass song, and the subject we settled on was highway hypnosis, which is something that Ronnie and I have both felt before. Traveling around the country, you end up doing a lot of long drives—I’m talking 16-hour hauls. When you’re driving for seven hours straight, you start to hallucinate—the next thing you know, the semis next to you are doing this freeze-frame thing, and you’ve got tunnel vision, man. You’ve got that highway hypnosis. So we wrote about that. It’s about rolling down the highway and feeling like you’re just hallucinating in your tunnel vision.
I told Ronnie a story about one time when I slipped into this little dream while I was driving. I dreamt that I was at my grandmother’s house. She’s been dead and gone for a while now—but, in my dream, she woke me up and I realized I was driving. In the lyrics of the song—“the angels, they watch over me to keep me from disaster”—I’m talking about my grandma saying to me, “You’re driving, wake up!”
The other thing I should mention about this song is the big section in the middle where I wanted to flash to the inside of a vehicle. It sounds like you’re driving a car and you have the noises going by you, people screaming and people honking their horns, and the ambient sounds of the road that you’re on. So we figured out how to make it sound like that, and it’s a cool little part.
Enough to Leave
“Enough to Leave” is another very personal one, but it’s a subject I want to talk about because it’s something that I feel strongly about. This is a direct song to two of my friends that died last year of heroin overdoses or, more specifically, heroin that had been cut with fentanyl. I lost two good ones; they were people that I loved dearly.
They both died within a week of each other and, the morning I heard that the second one died, I just sat down at my table and started writing this one. I was reaching up, singing the song straight to them.
What’s interesting is I showed this song to another one of my friends, and he related to it in a different way—more about lost love than a dead person. It’s cool that the listener can interpret it any way, but I was straight-up speaking directly to two friends of mine who had passed.
On “Hollow Heart,” I was trying to write a good old bluegrass song—not so progressive, not so psychedelic. Just a good bluegrass song in G. There’s another song I wrote called “Dust in a Baggie” and I like that one alright, so I feel like this one is sort of in that vein. It’s about a toxic relationship, I suppose.
I feel like bluegrass is my heart and soul but I strayed from it for a little while as a teenager. I sort of got sidetracked when I was in a metal band. But eventually I realized that I missed playing bluegrass. It’s almost like a portal back to the good old days back when I was just a kid playing music with my dad and his friends. I can revisit that moment in my life back when my dad was teaching me how to play and teaching me how to tie my shoes. Bluegrass is more than just music to me. It’s where I come from. It’s love and family.
Love Like Me
I wrote “Love Like Me” with Jon Weisberger. I had the melody and a bunch of the lyrics, but he helped me piece them together and I think it’s a beautiful song. When I recorded it in the studio, we tried to have the band on it. We tried a couple times to figure out what the arrangement would be. Then, I decided it didn’t need a whole band, so I called Jerry Douglas and he came in, and we played this song together as a duet—just guitar and dobro. I’m very glad to have Jerry Douglas as a friend and someone that I can just call to come play some sweet dobro. I think it turned out beautifully.
Everything’s the Same
Jerry Douglas played on this track as well. The song was written by Jarrod Walker, our mandolin player, and I helped him with the last two verses. I would say that he wrote 75 percent of it, and I helped him get the last little bit of it down. He’s been in my band for maybe a year or two, and he’s not only one of the best mandolin players I’ve ever seen, but he’s also a great writer. And he needs to keep at it because he’s going to get more songs like this one.
The thing with bluegrass is you’ve got to be good at your instrument to play it. Whenever I watch the Del McCoury Band, I think, “Man, this is a band where every single person up there is an absolute master of their craft.” The same is certainly true of Jerry Douglas, as well. Now some people don’t care about that kind of stuff, which is fine but I really appreciate the technical proficiency of musicians. That’s probably why it’s such a really cool feeling to have Jerry Douglas playing on our little song.
“Guitar Peace” started with this guitar riff in my head. One of the days we were at the studio, everybody took a break for lunch or dinner except me and our producer, Glenn. I said to him: “I want to try this weird thing.” Glenn has a harmonium, so we grabbed that and set up a couple of mics, and I grabbed this old, early-1940s Martin 000-28. It was a beautiful old guitar that was at Blackbird Studio.
I had this little guitar riff already in my head but, the night before, I had watched this George Harrison movie with my girlfriend, and they were talking about Ravi Shankar a lot in that film. And, for some reason, I wanted to play my guitar without knowing what I was going to play. I wanted to make something up on the spot and feel it—not have any script, not have any plan. So I turned on the microphone, had Glenn put down a drone with the harmonium and played over it. I was trying to play from my soul.
“Freedom” is a song that I wrote with Lindsay Lou—she’s an amazing writer, a very gifted singer and a wonderful human being. This song almost sounds like an old bluegrass gospel thing, except we’re not talking about Jesus; we’re talking about other stuff. That old bluegrass gospel is some of my favorite stuff—the way that the instruments and the voices work together.
Then, the guys got together and we worked to get the vocal harmonies and the little mandolin runs. It almost sounds like an old Bill Monroe recording, and we thought it was a great way to wrap up the record, almost like the credits at the end of a film.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.