The Earworm: Renewal by Billy Strings
Reviewed by Caitlin Reardon
(Rounder Records, 2021; Listen here)
If you play the banjo you are immediately cool. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. The banjo is probably my favorite instrument, and while I have attempted to learn it (and failed), I have realized that some of the most talented musicians to walk the earth are banjo players. The sound that it produces is not only rustic but versatile, and it takes a lot of work to master the picking and rolls of the strings, despite how effortless it looks. I have always been a fan of the bluegrass and folk genres. On many Saturdays I will wake up to my dad blasting bluegrass from the kitchen downstairs; some may find this to be dreadful (like my sisters), but I enjoy it.
So when I started hearing the name “Billy Strings” around the music-sphere, I knew I had to check him out. The 29-year-old bluegrass musician, whose off-stage name is William Apostol, has certainly made a name for himself and is on the fast track to becoming one of bluegrass’s most influential artists of the genre. To me, bluegrass folk especially hits extra special in the summer, and in my search for a staple summer album I came across Strings’s 2021 record “Renewal.”
I was instantly pulled into Billy Strings’s world from the start of this 16-track project. Its production is lush, layered with all the necessary instruments central to creating a proper bluegrass record. “Renewal” is an honest album with deep themes that are explored and resolved through the earthy depths of the guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin coupled with introspective lyricism.
The album starts off on a fast-paced mission to deliver foot-stomping barn burners. “Secrets,” the second track, is a confession of Strings’ faults and sins, yet all-embracing in his authenticity. His lyrics match the pace of the song, creating a celebratory declaration of human vices: “The wasted life I left behind me / Was just a war I couldn't win / I'm the devil's guest of honor that's the best it's ever been,” Strings sings. There is something so potent about Strings lyrics. Announcing himself as the “devil’s guest of honor” is a bold statement that lyrically stood out to me and pulled me into the rich darkness of the record. Not only can Strings pick, but he can proudly relay his unadulterated secrets for all to hear. This, in my opinion, is not only admirable, but what makes a great artist.
“Love And Regret” settles the excitement of the first couple songs in a more gentle way. While Strings gets vulnerable about love in this track, he never let up on his musical strength. Strings trickles in small elements like the fiddle to subtly fill the sound. Painting a clear picture of his lost love with his words and instrumentation, Strings’ hurt is colored vibrantly. Still holding onto the bluegrass twang, I love how acutely Strings knows and understands balance. In the middle of the song, Strings speaks a small monologue with a muffled voice effect:
“A flower illustrated in bloom
Floating on a wisp of consciousness
She rides innocently down the river to
The place where the light lives
And shrugs off enchantment with a sigh
Dreaming from the first moment of her life
Unheard songs bathed in silver ring out as
Morning rolls into the endless.”
This small touch of spoken-word is borderline literary. The way that Strings writes is effortless — he can create a whole world that you have never seen before and will let you in gracefully. The sheer descriptors he uses saturates the track and beautifully hypnotizes the listener just like Strings’ captivation with the girl he loves. The moment is so tender, bare, and stripped back but never lacking. Strings knows balance. He matches the light and the dark, the poetic language and the simplicity, the fierce and the mild. It all mixes beautifully, blending together in sweetness.
Discussing dark themes such as suicide and substance abuse throughout the record, Strings contrasts these topics with riveting instrumentals no less rooted in heart. “Heartbeat Of America” lends itself to a more country undertone while jamming throughout the entirety of the song. The fiddle carries the passion and weight almost like a narration of sorts, as Strings weaves in simply instrumental parts that dominate over his own voice. What I love about this is how Strings intuits when and why to let his singing take the back seat — sometimes the instruments have more of an impact. This track in particular sounds more modernly produced, incorporating technical elements such as synth-like tones. The way the instrumentals carry through the song marks a subtle changing of tides, painting a picture of loss, hurt, love, and intensity.
“In The Morning Light” is my favorite track from the album. It is another love song but truly stands alone. Both the lyrics and instrumentation speak softly, moving effortlessly to depict the story that is Strings’ love.“I’m not sure that I deserve the love that I receive but I give it all to her,” he sings. It is clear in this album that Strings struggles with regret from the past and he acknowledges this shame, but perfectly captures the idea of loving someone so selflessly. His vocals are especially strong on this song speaking to how greatly he loves the woman. It has such an ethereal narration as well, putting the woman he loves on a pedestal from an image so simple as standing in the morning light. I love how Strings lets himself be vulnerable, a quality that can sometimes be suppressed in today’s country culture.
Strings exemplifies the same tenderness in “Show Me The Door,” a track that dedicates itself to his love once again. The banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar are freshly balanced with layered vocals in the chorus: “I'll be here if you need me / I'll be here even if you don't / Show me the door or show something more / Take me in or shove me out to sea.” The pleading tone Strings’ sings coupled with the crescendo of instruments communicates the soft beauty of dedicating yourself to someone no matter their feeling towards you, but Strings still keeps it exciting all at the same time. There is a feeling of closure and acceptance here which shifts the tone of the album.
The nine-minute track “Hide And Seek” is a thorough tale that weaves together light and dark emotions with intricacy. It begins as an exciting, playful composition of sound and then seeks to slow a bit. Breaking down the instruments and letting each one have their own shining moment, drama is built and lets you decipher what the track means to you personally. It is more of a calculated jam session, creating a vast and deep threshold of sound that surrounds the senses beautifully. I can picture where I am, who I am with and how I feel through this song.
Billy Strings’ musical genius is just so apparent. “Renewal” has everything you could ever want in an album — heart, tension, drama, passion, quality lyricism, self-reflection and warmth. What I particularly love about him most is how he executes the balance of his work. The instruments and vocals all collide in a cohesive, fluid stream. The record feels and sounds weightless because Strings is able to reach a natural equilibrium of beauty within messiness. “Renewal” is a great awakening of self-awareness and perspective, proving how music can help to heal the inner turmoil in all of us.
Caitlin Reardon is from Southampton, MA and is currently a journalism major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since she was little, Caitlin loved to write and developed a passion for it. Her parents instilled in her from a very young age the importance of music and its uniqueness. Intertwining her love for music with writing, she found a knack for music reviewing through The Daily Collegian where you can find some of her published journalistic works in news and arts. She is very excited to expand her platform to Overheard with The Earworm and is open to article requests on particular albums. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.