Singer, songwriter and guitarist Billy Strings has taken the bluegrass world by storm in the past few years, winning a Grammy for his acclaimed 2019 LP Home. But it’s not just his deep love of tradition that’s made him the genre’s new superstar – it’s his willingness to push, even rip into, the edges of the envelope, folding in influences from rock, jazz and psychedelia. All of his attributes were on full display on his debut Austin City Limits taping, which we live streamed around the world to his thousands of loyal fans.
Backed by his band of aces, longtime touring partners Jarrod Walker (mandolin), Billy Failing (banjo) and Royal Masat (bass), Strings – William Apostol to his mom – took the stage with a hearty “Austin City Limits, how are ya?” Then it was straight into “Dust in a Baggie,” an early Strings tune right out of the tradition of songs about prison time and the lamentations thereof. Strings then explained how he grew up watching bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley on ACL, recorded by his parents on their VCR until, as his mother reminded him, the young Billy shoved a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich into the machine. That kicked off “Hide and Seek,” on which he displayed how far he’s expanding his chosen milieu, putting his jazzy acoustic guitar through delay, phase and distortion effects – much to his audience’s delight. Fire breathed, Strings and company slowed things down with the lovely, melancholy “Show Me the Door,” penned by Walker. The tempo sped back up to normal bluegrass levels with “Must Be Seven,” a celebration of leaving the past in the rearview mirror. “Red Daisy” pumped up the velocity to freight train levels for a song squarely in the old school tradition.
After that barnburner, everyone needed another chance to catch breath, so Strings and band performed another ballad with “Love Like Me.” The anthemic “Fireline” followed, with its tough demeanor and rock-inflected solos from Strings, Failing and Walker. While Walker switched mandolins, Strings “just picked one while we’re waiting,” with a great solo instrumental that showed off his Doc Watson side. Mando changed and tuned, the band then went into the sociopolitical “Watch It Fall,” one of the hit singles from Home. Then it was back to tradition for “Slow Train,” featuring some of the musicians’ most fleet-fingered solos. Next, Strings got introspective on “Away From the Mire,” a song about letting go of past regrets and future anxieties that featured an epic psychedelic guitar solo. From the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction, it’s a fan favorite. After another blazer with “Long Forgotten Dream,” Strings capped off the set with “Meet Me at the Creek,” a high-energy closer with lots of room for virtuoso soloing from all players that incorporated everything from folk standards to heavy metal power chords. The fans went wild, needless to say.
Greeted almost like conquering heroes, the band surrounded a single, old-fashioned Grand Ole Opry microphone for the encore. Cheekily acknowledging the city in which they were performing, Strings and company went into a bluesy take on Willie Nelson’s “Devil in a Sleeping Bag,” to the great delight of the audience. The group then ended the show with the four-part harmonies of the satirical spiritual lesson “If Your Hair’s Too Long, There’s Sin in Your Heart.” The audience gave them a standing ovation as they took a bow and quit the stage. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.