WATCH: Billy Strings Ends Massive ACL Nights Set with a Special Rendition of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Erika Goldring/WireImage via Getty Images)

What do you get when you cross progressive bluegrass music with a performance style forged by playing heavy metal? You get a Billy Stings live show. Strings has often said that he learned to play by picking traditional ‘grass alongside his dad, Terry Barber. However, he learned how to perform by playing in metal bands during his teen years.

There’s also a jam band quality to what Billy Strings and his band do night after night. Songs like “Meet Me at the Creek” turn into 20-minute-long jam sessions and no one minds. However, that can make a set run long. Last week, Billy and the boys ran a little long during their ACL Nights performance. Jambase reports that the band played a blistering 34-song set at their Thursday night show at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin. Then, the band played two encores. It all culminated in an unamplified rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Billy Strings Gets Inventive

By the time the crowd called Billy Strings and his band back to the stage for a second encore, they were well past curfew. On one hand, there could be some legal repercussions for playing past curfew. Noise complaints or other legal issues were a real possibility. On the other hand, Strings didn’t want to let the packed crowd down. So, he had to get inventive.

In the video above, you can see what Billy Strings and the band decided to do. They came back to the stage with their instruments. This time, though, they weren’t plugged into amplifiers or the house sound system. Additionally, they returned to the stage without a microphone. Before they get into their final song of the night, Billy hushes the crowd. This was probably partially so they could hear and partially to safeguard against the aforementioned legal issues.

After getting the crowd to turn it down a notch, Billy Strings and the band launched into a completely acoustic rendition of the classic song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Watch it below.

For the most part, the crowd stays quiet enough to hear the unamplified performance. Then, near the end of the song, they begin to sing along. For a moment, it’s like Billy Strings is leading a congregation of more than 2,000 souls in a gospel singalong.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” Has a Long History

Few songs in country music have as deep a history as this one. It’s a staple of the Grand Ole Opry. Usually, you’ll hear it at the beginning or end of the show. In fact, the song closed the program on the Opry’s final night at the Ryman. But, it goes deeper than that.

According to Songfacts, Ada Habershon and Charles Gabriel co-penned “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in 1908. Later, A.P. Carter reworked the song and The Carter Family released it in 1935. The Carter Family was among the earliest stars in country music which earned them the moniker The First Family of Country Music. They came to prominence after the Bristol Sessions much like Jimmie Rodgers.

In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released an album called Will the Circle Be Unbroken. They recorded a massive album of covers and traditional songs. More than that, they recorded it with artists from the previous generation. As a result, artists like Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, The Carter Family, Norman Blake, and more classic artists found a new audience.

Most relevant to this story is the fact that Will the Circle Be Unbroken made Doc Watson a stadium-packing headliner. Later, Watson’s music would have a massive impact on Billy Strings’ guitar style. So, in a way, the end of Billy’s ACL Nights show was a full-circle moment.