Billy Strings Renewal Album Review
Billy Strings told The New York Times earlier this year that a hangover turned his life around. It was 2016, and he’d spent the tour stop partying and partying and partying — an endless night of booze and cocaine and more booze and more cocaine — and the dude was feeling it. With a bandmate speedily driving their van across the south to get to their next gig, Strings hung his head out the window, puking every 10 minutes or so, gruesome streaks of bad decisions sliding down the side of the vehicle. Pretty gnarly stuff that might make a great scene in a biopic someday.
And yet, looking back on that time, Strings doesn’t speak with a hedonistic romanticism or fondness. He’s not comparing himself to ol’ Waylon or Cash or any of the other outlaw country heroes who built lore on the fantastical idea of getting fucked up. Instead, he took that moment of puking down the highway as a moment of reflection. What the hell was he doing? This was not a path that would end well. He knew it, and vowed to change his life and gave up alcohol and hard drugs.
Since he made that commitment to himself, he’s been reaping the rewards of that discipline. He’s released two more albums, won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, sold out countless venues across the United States while gaining a reputation as an incredible live performer, and is getting profiled, well, in The New York Times. Not a bad few years, eh?
Because Strings, real name William Apostol, is indeed lucky to be here. Prior to the aforementioned come to Jesus moment while puking down the highway, the 28-year-old had been fighting enormous demons of his past for his entire life. He was born in Muir, Michigan, a tiny little town in the middle of the state, into a world that was not loaded with opportunity. His parents were drug addicts, and he’s told interviewers stories over the years of random people in his house smoking meth one day — and then getting hauled off the prison the next. Naturally, Strings found himself in this lineage of substance abuse. Who wouldn’t when your mom’s pals are smoking meth? He got high for the first time when he was eight, and got drunk for the first time when he was 10.
Although Strings was on this path of nihilism, there was something that kept him grounded — his deep love for music. His youth was filled with drugs, but he also filled it with plucking. He learned how to play guitar at the age of four — something he was so intuitively good at that his aunt nicknamed him “Billy Strings” — and he spent time lost reading musician biographies instead of doing homework and literally slept in bed next to his instrument.
Shortly after officially becoming an adult, with some encouragement from friends, he chased this side of his personality and moved to Traverse City, Michigan, getting away from the drug den that was his childhood home. There, he found his way in the local music scene, meeting producer and mandolin player Don Julin, who immediately recognized his talent and invited him to play in a few local bands. He started touring relentlessly, writing and recording music as his name grew in popularity due to his dynamic live performance. Word of mouth about his speed as a banjo player spread in jam band and bluegrass scenes across the country. Magazines like Rolling Stone deemed him a prodigy in the late 2010s, he spends his Monday afternoons at his elementary school handing out free guitars to kids, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So that brings us to Renewal, the fifth Billy Strings album (and second on Rounder Records), an expansive bluegrass project that appropriately sounds like it was written by a guy who’s been through some shit. The 16 songs clock in an hour and 10 minutes and are full of rolling and rollicking moments, a vibrant display of his versatile skills as a picker. Throughout the project, Strings sounds bouncy and alive, clear-headed and whimsical, tackling wide themes of love, regret, terror, happiness, and the general struggle of existence. At times, it’s rich with psychedelia. At others, he’s lovingly lost in a bluegrass jam. Strings delivers Renewal as an impressive feat of an album, one that shows his understanding of his place in a genre with some history.
Strings is an artist whose known for his live performances — a common observation about his talent is something like, “you’ve just gotta see him play, man” — and on Renewal, Strings seems to be aware of this reputation. Because he’s focused down on the studio element, creating a sharp record that pops. A prime example of this clean sound being the album’s opener “Know It All,” a ferocious display of his picking abilities. It might not be a long and unwieldy jam that his live fans might be used to, but it does an effective job at capturing what it sounds like when someone is playing the banjo so fast that it might start on fire.
Lyrically, he’s pushed himself to grow as well. Traditional bluegrass is obviously rooted in storytelling, and Strings is now walking a line where he’s emoting effectively without getting too over the top. Take for example “This Old World,” a track with lyrics that read like they were written by a wise old man with a big beard and a wizard stick, not a twenty-something with Sailor Jerry tattoos scribbled across his forearms.
When I lay my body down I’d like to feel the dirt beneath me
And the howling wind could sheath me and I’d finally be set free
For a moment you can yawn and throw my things into a pile
My dawn is finally here and yours might come in just a while
My dawn is finally here and yours might come in just a while
There’s a quiet elegance in this type of songwriting, which has become a defining feature of Strings. He’s an effective and evocative storyteller without being over the top. He matches that with a bluegrass sound that is both bright and rustic, a sophisticated spin that quietly showcases the fact that he’s a student of the genre. On another track, “In the Morning Light,” a ballad he’s written about his new fiancé, he walks a line of wise and sappy: “And in the evening when the sun is running low I’ll walk bravely through the fields of burning ember,” he sings. “And I’ll remember everything she said to me back when our love was first in bloom.” It’s a sweet, subtle understanding of love and reliance on one another, and the power and beauty of romance. A difficult subject to tackle without sounding like a Hallmark card.
The culmination of Renewal is “Hide and Seek,” the album’s most powerful and profound song. Not only is this track the longest and most jam friendly (his live show fans will be happy with its cruising), Strings says it was inspired by his friend who committed suicide. In fact, he honors his late friend in the song directly by using the last text messages he’d received as the songs refrain. “Well, it’s a dark time, I do believe, a cold wind’s a-blowin’ at my door,” Strings bellows over elastic strings. “Incredible light I’m gonna find where I don’t have to worry anymore.” That’s the challenge of existence, ain’t it? Worry. Struggle. Is this… *looks around*… all there is? How do we get by? Happiness is often fleeting. The waves of life crash. Humans are tormented beings, and pushing through can feel like a slog. Sometimes we’re born into success. Other times we’re born into drug addled homes in Michigan. Power can be found in perseverance; how will you deal with the hand you’re dealt?
Billy Strings Renewal Track By Track Review
Track 1: “Know It All”
From the review: “‘Know It All’ is a ferocious display of his picking abilities. It might not be a long and unwieldy jam that his live fans might be used to, but it does an effective job at capturing what it sounds like when someone is playing the banjo so fast that it might start on fire.”
Track 2: “Secrets”
Bouncy and upbeat, “Secrets” is a classic Billy Strings bluegrass banger. Come for the plucking, stay for the mandolin solo.
Track 3: “Love and Regret”
Here we’ve got a swinging ballad of sorrow and optimism, a combination that Strings does well. This track features some of his finest writing about the complicated and blissful ignorance of young love: “I see her running but I’m not the same, I’ve chased after pleasure to bury my pain.”
Track 4: “Heartbeat of America”
On “Heartbeat of America,” Strings takes the name of the song literally, showcasing his diverse talent as a player with his band as they jam on a diverse beat for the first half of the song — eventually launching into a couple verses about the struggles of the American psyche during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ah, that ‘rona blues indeed.
Track 5: “In the Morning Light”
From the review: “‘In the Morning Light’ is a ballad Strings has written about his new fiancé. He walks a line of wise and sappy: ‘And in the evening when the sun is running low I’ll walk bravely through the fields of burning ember,’ he sings. ‘And I’ll remember everything she said to me back when our love was first in bloom.’ It’s a sweet, subtle understanding of love and reliance on one another, and the power and beauty of romance. A difficult subject to tackle without sounding like a Hallmark card.”
Track 6: “This Old World”
From the review: “Traditional bluegrass is obviously rooted in storytelling, and Strings is now walking a line where he’s emoting effectively without getting too over the top. Take for example ‘This Old World,’ a track with lyrics that read like they were written by a wise old man with a big beard and a wizard stick, not a twenty-something with Sailor Jerry tattoos scribbled across his forearms.
Track 7: “Show Me the Door”
This is another song about love, but this time it focuses on heartbreak, and that extremely difficult feeling of wanting to be there for someone, despite knowing it’s best for both of you if you walk out the door.
Track 8: “Hellbender”
The lyrics of “Hellbender” are an exploration of the fruits of your labor, if your labor is hedonistic nihilism.
Track 9: “Red Daisy”
Another fierce bluegrass jam that showcases Strings’ player skills.
Track 10: “The Fire on My Tongue”
This song is a prime example of Strings’ power as a songwriter. Often there are various lines in his music that suggest an understanding much greater than his age: “I don’t trust the ashes of my mind.”
Track 11: “Nothing’s Working”
A great mediation on the current state of America.
Track 12: “Hide and Seek”
From the review: “The culmination of Renewal is ‘Hide and Seek,’ the album’s most powerful and profound song. Not only is this track the longest and most jam friendly (his live show fans will be happy with its cruising), Strings says it was inspired by his friend who committed suicide. In fact, he honors his late friend in the song directly by using the last text messages he’d received as the songs refrain. ‘Well, it’s a dark time, I do believe, a cold wind’s a-blowin’ at my door,’ Strings bellows over elastic strings. ‘Incredible light I’m gonna find where I don’t have to worry anymore.’”
Track 13: “Ice Bridges”
This jam is one for the heads.
Track 14: “Fire Lane”
Here we have “Fire Lane,” a rumbling, spirited track that sounds like dramatically riding west into the sunset. Grab your cowboy hat, pal.
Track 15: “Running the Route”
Another jam for the heads.
Track 16: “Leaders”
Strings closes out Renewal with an introspective track looking towards the future, posing existential questions about what kind of world we’re creating for our children.