Billy Strings & Terry Barber, “Me/And/Dad” review


Billy Strings and Terry Barber Me/And/Dad Rounder

It’s about the story.

Billy Strings’ version of hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll has engulfed the Americana music community over the past several years. He has won a Grammy, as well as multiple International Bluegrass Music Association Awards including Entertainer of the Year twice, and an Americana Music Award as Artist of the Year. More than a flashy guitar player, Strings has bridged the traditional bluegrass community to broader audiences playing increasingly large stadium shows.

But the story started in Michigan where almost thirty years ago Strings acquired his passion for music at the knee of his father, Terry Barber. Barber played classic country and bluegrass songs on his Martin guitar, and young Billy unsurprisingly gravitated to his music, embracing the songs of Doc Watson, Hank, Jr., and Bill and Charlie Monroe as naturally as he would later experience those of Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix, to whom Barber also exposed young Billy. We heard this influence on previous Strings recordings including “Ice Bridges,” “All of Tomorrow,” “Love Like Me,” and “Hellbender” without understanding its source. Now, we do.

Fast forward a couple decades, and we have “Me/And/Dad,” as impressive an album based within acoustic garage-picking as we will encounter. Selecting childhood songs that Strings felt were most significant, and recorded over five days with four-fifths of the classic Del McCoury Band—Ron (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) McCoury, Jason Carter (fiddle), and Mike Bub (bass)—along with Michael Cleveland (fiddle) and Jerry Douglas (resonator)—this is not necessarily the album we were expecting from Billy Strings at this point in his trajectory.

But it is a most welcome continuation of his journey.

The palpable familiarity between Barber (guitar) and Strings (guitar and banjo) breathes vitality to these very familiar songs. What is plain beyond that captured on tape is the affirmative impact Barber has had on Strings, instilling a deep appreciation for these elemental, unadorned sounds.

High-energy, up-tempo songs like “Deeper in the Well” (featuring amazing fiddle touches from Cleveland,”) “Way Downtown,” and “Stone Walls and Steel Bars” provide balance from the maudlin songs favored by the duo. Knowing a little about their relationship, songs like “Wandering Boy,” “Little Blossom,” and even the instrumentals “Frosty Morn” and “Peartree” hit a little harder than they might when performed by others.

The album opens with “Long Journey Home,” the first song Strings recalls learning from his father, and closes with an engaging vocal duet between Barber and Strings’ mother Debra on an impactful “I Heard My Mother Weeping” with the “Little White Church,” another family favorite providing additional ballast.

There may be no more universally beloved bluegrass song than “John Deere Tractor,” and despite some challenging lyrics (“Remember, city women ain’t the same…and the sweet country girls don’t complain…” ) the song holds up over forty years; Strings delivers his most emotionally-charged vocal on this Larry Sparks classic.

Terry Barber’s voice and guitar playing is the foundation upon which Billy Strings is building his career, and this 45-minute set of bluegrass is a fitting tribute to their relationship, the story of a father and son whose bonds were strengthened by shared passion for unadorned, natural-sounding music. One of this year’s most pleasant surprises, one that advances Strings’ rapidly growing legacy by revealing the fervor he possesses for his musical roots.

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