A sweet testament to the deep love between a father and a son, Billy Strings’ new album Me/and/Dad features him in duet with his dad, Terry Barber, plus a host of the best bluegrass artists: Michael Cleveland (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Jason Carter (fiddle), Mike Bubb (bass), Ron McCoury (mandolin), and Rob McCoury (banjo). It sparkles with joy and the kind of seemingly impossible playing in which Strings specializes.
It’s a romp, but as always in bluegrass, serious topics lay at the heart of the music.
Channeling the Stanley Brothers for “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” Strings shows that a lot of bluegrass’ genesis was a tug of war between the rogue outlaw images of Appalachian songs and the earnest love of Jesus and home. Bluegrass is also haunted by death, though, and nowhere is this more clear than in the disc’s opening song, “Long Journey Home.”
The album was, in part, meant to push back against the steely gaze of time. As anyone who has lost a parent knows, it’s important to grab the time you have with them and make the most of it. Thus, it seems each song was mainly handpicked for fun.
Most are drawn from bluegrass classics, though there is a delicious George Jones song thrown in – “Life to Go.” “Pear Tree” is a jaunty Appalachian fiddle tune originally from Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton. The straight-ahead cover of “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” was drawn from those fire-breathing Bill Monroe sessions with Flatt & Scruggs that first kickstarted the bluegrass era.
It’s tempting to tie the songs here to Strings’ own life, growing up poor in a hardscrabble corner of Michigan, living an unstable life. One could guess that father and son playing these songs together is a way to reminisce about what they’ve gone through, to celebrate the unlikely success of Strings’ career now.
After a joyous take on the Carter Family’s “Wandering Boy” (“Out in the cold world and far away from home / Somebody’s boy is wandering alone”), Strings and Barber talk about the harmonies on the song in a bit of post-song studio chatter.
“That kind of makes me crack a little bit,” Barber exclaims in his rough-edged voice. “Yeah, I know,” Strings says so sadly. It’s one of the most beautiful moments on the album, a reminder of the intimacy between a father and a son playing this music, as well as the power of making roots music within a family.
Bluegrass is beloved today in part because it’s perfect for passing down directly. Strings, who was born at a bluegrass-picking party, knows firsthand the joy that making music with family can bring.
Me/And/Dad is available HERE.