Review: Billy Strings Brings a Reborn Sound with ‘Renewal’

by Clayton Edwards
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Billy Strings announced Renewal earlier this summer. When he did, he said he wanted to travel some new musical roads with the new record. Then he released two singles.

The first, “Fire Line,” sounded like a mild departure from his usual output. “In the Morning Light” followed, a bittersweet love song packed with self-doubt. The two tracks highlighted the range that he and the band were going for on Renewal.

Renewal does see Billy Strings and the boys treading some new ground. However, fans of his lightning-fast flatpicking won’t be disappointed. There are plenty of bluegrass-heavy tracks on the album. The shift in sound starts with the fourth track. “Heartbeat of America” features some rock elements blended with Billy’s string band. The seamless blend works well, but the change is evident.

“Heartbeat of America”

Billy Strings deviates from the norm a few times on the album. This is most notable in “Leaders,” where he adds a steel guitar to the slow and mournful tune and “Fire Line,” which I talked about in a previous piece. For the most part, Billy and the band packed Renewal with their instantly recognizable blend of progressive and traditional bluegrass.

Lyrically, this seems to be a more introspective album than his previous outings. For example, both “In the Morning Light,” and “Love and Regret,” deal with themes of love and heartache. They look at romantic love in all its complications and nuances.

A good portion of Renewal’s sixteen songs could be dissected and interpreted in several ways. Billy Strings and the other members of his band who contribute lyrically have always shown strong songwriting skills. They’ve stepped it up a notch with this album. As a result, it feels much less like renewal than the maturation of a group of unbelievably talented young men.

Standout Tracks from Billy Strings’ New Record

As with any release, Renewal has some highlights. Make no mistake, though, this album is top-notch from front to back. However, I have some favorites.

Red Daisy

Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing Billy Strings experiment musically. However, I think he’s at his best when he leans into his traditional bluegrass roots. “Red Daisy,” sounds like it could have been ringing from the mountains in the heyday of Bill Monroe. It’s banjo-heavy and Billy nails that old-time high lonesome vocal sound.

Lyrically, it compares a woman to a beautiful red flower that the narrator would do anything to protect. However, a traveler comes by one day and plucks the flower away. It’s a time-tested metaphor laid over great bluegrass instrumentation. This might be my favorite on the album overall.

Love and Regret

“Love and Regret,” sounds more like a country song, complete with a dash of steel guitar. It’s a slow, sad tune about throwing away a good love to chase life’s pleasures and the pain that follows. The steel guitar really highlights the pain in Billy’s voice on this one. It’s a bit of a change for him, but sometimes change is good. In this case, it’s great.

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