Billy Strings is one of those once-in-a-generation artists who revitalize their genre with the scope of their talent and original perspective.
While to some, it may have seemed like Strings appeared on the bluegrass scene suddenly, his connection to the genre was far from new. Strings began playing guitar at five years old, thanks to the influence of his father, Terry Barber. Strings learned the bluegrass songs that were the soundtrack to his rowdy family's life, along with metal and classic rock favorites.
Born and raised in a small town in Michigan, Strings' childhood was marked by difficult losses and hard times as his parents struggled with meth addiction. As a young adult, Strings dealt with his own addiction issues but was later able to find sobriety.
He eventually left home and found his way to Nashville, where he gained his first exposure playing with mandolin player Don Julin. After four years with Julin, Strings went solo. Critical acclaim quickly followed.
From 2016 to 2022, Strings released one EP and four albums. Two of his records, 2019's Home and 2021's Renewal, have been nominated for Grammy Awards, with Home earning the top prize. He has also won an Americana Music Award and numerous International Bluegrass Music Awards, among other significant accolades.
At the young age of 30, Strings has created a remarkable legacy, and we can't wait to see where he goes from here.
Keep reading to see The Boot's curated list of Billy Strings' top 10 songs so far:
"Must Be Seven"From 'Home' (2019)
While Home is not Strings' debut, it's the record that propelled him to critical acclaim, introduced him to the mainstream, and helped earn him his reputation for being the future of bluegrass. "Must Be Seven" is one of many standout tracks on the album. It's a hopeful story song about down-and-out people who turn their luck around. Strings co-wrote the song with Aaron Allen and enlisted Molly Tuttle for background vocals.
"John Deere Tractor"From 'Me/And/Dad' (2022)
In 2022, Strings released Me/And/Dad, a collaborative album recorded alongside his father, Terry Barber. While Barber is not Strings' biological father, he raised Strings from the time he was a child and was the one who taught him to play guitar. The album consists of traditional country and bluegrass songs. Among the highlights is "John Deere Tractor," a lonesome, homesick track first recorded as a bluegrass number in 1980 by Larry Sparks.
"Slow Train"From 'Billy Strings - EP' (2016)
In 2016, Strings released his first solo recording, the Billy Strings - EP. The six-track project is a mix of traditional songs and originals. The opening tune, "Slow Train," was a perfect introduction to Strings. Here, he transforms an already lived-in bluegrass song with his ferociously energetic guitar playing, informed by the greats of many genres.
"In the Morning Light"From 'Renewal' (2021)
In 2021, Strings released Renewal. Produced by Jonathan Wilson (who previously worked with Roger Waters and Father John Misty), the acclaimed record highlights Strings' eclectic sound that's influenced by jam bands and classic rock just as much as it is bluegrass.
One of the most emotional tracks on the record is "In the Morning Light," which Strings wrote with Paul Hoffman. Here, he extracts remarkable emotional expression from his guitar and mandolin, while John Mailander's violin adds a layer of melancholy to the love song.
"Taking Water"From 'Home' (2019)
Strings wrote "Taking Water" with friend and collaborator Jon Weisberger. The ominous track tells of the woes of poverty and warns of the further harm that can befall when society refrains from lending a helping hand.
Strings knowingly sings, "Neighborhoods left to decay / People died or walked away / Nowhere left for them to stay / And we just look the other way."
"The Great Divide" with Luke Combs From 'The Great Divide' (2021)
Combs intended to release this track on his first bluegrass album, but that project got put on pause. Instead, "The Great Divide" was released as a single in 2021, which spoke to the bitter tribalism running rampant through our culture. The lyrics warn: "We're about to fall apart now / If we can't reach the other side / We gotta find a way across the great divide."
"Meet Me at the Creek"From 'Turmoil & Tinfoil' (2017)
In "Meet Me at the Creek," Strings declares, "I had an eye for trouble and I've lived a life of pain," and thus draws us into his world that he so intensely captures on Turmoil & Tinfoil.
"Meet Me At The Creek" is perhaps Strings' most genre-bending songs. On mandolins and acoustic guitars, Strings and his band rip aggressive, jam band-ready solos on simple acoustic instruments.
"Know It All"From 'Renewal' (2021)
Strings wrote "Know It All" with collaborators Allen and Weisberger. Despite its title, the song is about accepting all that we don't know and can't change.
He sings, "Well I thought I knew it all, 'til I crashed into the wall / Let me learn from my mistakes and try to pick up all the pieces." On Renewal, Strings' songwriting is at its most open and candid. "Know It All" is one of the finest examples of this.
"Away From the Mire"From: 'Home' (2019)
While situational details are sparse within the lyrics, "Away From the Mire" is full of the complex emotions that come with fraught relationships. It spotlights some of String's best songwriting, with lines like "Spring lied to us this year again," the hurt is made just as big as it feels. Of course, the track also has a killer solo.
"Dust in a Baggie"From 'Billy Strings - EP' (2016)
Strings first released "Dust in a Baggie" in 2013 with his then-musical partner Don Julin, who was originally featured on vocals. Three years later, Strings re-recorded the track for his EP, which has since become the song's definitive version and his biggest hit to date.
The track tells the woes of a prisoner who's "got 20 long years for some dust in a baggie." While the song isn't autobiographical, it draws a connection to the world Strings was born into and eventually escaped.