Renewal is Billy Strings’ Sistine Chapel; his grandest work to date that’s sure to cast a wide net of influence over bluegrass music for years to come.
“Well I thought I knew it all / Till I crashed into the wall / Let me learn from my mistakes / And try to pick up all the pieces”, sings Billy Strings on ‘Know It All,’ the first track off his new album Renewal.
The album, in many ways, is a renewal for Strings. He tackles everything from struggles with relationships and substance abuse to coping with the isolation of the ‘rona blues on this transformative, 16-song effort, which he describes as his most personal and emotional to date.
For such types of songs, it makes sense that Strings turned to his bandmates - who previously contributed to both 2017’s Turmoil & Tinfoil and 2019’s Grammy winning album Home - to help bring the album to life. Together the group acts as a boisterous bluegrass orchestra, providing a sound so big and bold that it could move mountains.
Although Strings leans heavily into hard-driving, high lonesome bluegrass sound with regularity, Renewal also incorporates haunting ballads (‘Nothing’s Working’), punky angst (‘Heartbeat of America’), high flying rock’n’roll (‘Fire Line’) and psychedelic jams (‘Hide And Seek’). But it’s that bluegrass mountain sound that so eloquently blends Strings’ musical gumbo together.
This is best exemplified by songs like ‘Red Daisy’ and ‘Show Me The Door,’ which feature cathartic, layered harmonies that transport listeners back to the days of Bill Monroe, Roscoe Holcomb and other pioneers of the genre.
It’s also exhibited well in ‘Hellbender,’ on which Strings laments a lifestyle rampant with alcohol, drug and gambling issues that’s leading him straight to hell. With no sign of changing his ways, his habits continue, for better or worse, as he helplessly sings, “With a chip on my shoulder I'm another day older / and I swear I could break down and cry.”
However, the album veers off most on ‘Ice Bridges’ and ‘Running The Route,’ two instrumentals that act as a playground for Strings to do what he does best: experiment. Just like with Michaelangelo, if you give Strings a blank canvas you can expect nothing short of a masterpiece. That can be said not just for the instrumentals but for Renewal as a whole, which acts as Strings’ Sistine Chapel; his grandest work to date that’s sure to cast a wide net of influence over bluegrass music for years to come.
At this point it’s safe to start including Strings among the pioneers of bluegrass - that is if you still consider his music strictly bluegrass. With one foot firmly planted in tradition and the other carving out uncharted territory with high class musicianship and a knack for experimentation, there’s no doubt that Strings is going to continue taking bluegrass music to dizzy new heights.