Almost concurrently with the release of Home, Billy Strings was named Emerging Artist of the Year and Guitarist of the Year for 2019 by the International Bluegrass Music Association. It’s a well-deserved acknowledgment and reflection, certainly, of his live performances. Yet, the awards just as easily could describe the assessment of his latest album; a wildly entertaining collection of songs displaying Strings titanic skills on guitar, not to mention those of his brilliant ensemble.
The foreboding opening of “Taking Water,” with its congregation of stringed instruments and their up-tempo escalations, turning into the fiddle-and-banjo romp of “Must Be Seven,” and lyrics telling us don’t look back, are confident one-two shots. The tempo hits even harder on the runaway “Running,” before Strings turns electric on “Away from the Mire,” building to a crescendo out of a reverberating, angular progression. Nearly Zeppelin-like on the title track, with ghostly vocals and a mounting of strings, Strings chooses a more idyllic, peaceful arrangement to chase down Wall Street and failing leaders on “Watch it Fall,” in a consciously wise juxtaposition of sound and substance.
There is more conspicuous attention to production here than on previous efforts, best exemplified on “Highway Hypnosis,” carrying moments that sonically feel like a ride in the trunk of an intergalactic taxi cab. There’s a cold, stark honesty within “Enough to Leave” and “Hollow Heart,” enough to persuade the jury of Strings’ maturing songwriting and gravitas behind his high and lonesome wail. He welcomes Molly Tuttle and Jerry Douglas, among others, to share in the journey, but even as collaborative as the album sounds, it’s most reflective of Strings and his mission.
The burner of all burners, “Everything’s the Same,” precedes the exotic “Guitar Peace” that winks at George Harrison and, perhaps once again, to the obscure Zeppelin outtake, “White Summer.” In spot-on four-part harmony, Strings and his cohorts close out the fun with “Freedom.” It’s an apt final cut for an album celebrating the freedom of expression from a blossoming master with a lot to say, and a lot to play.