It’s easy to dwell on differences between generations. The division between the young and old is obvious, and often the catalyst for the swing of the cultural pendulum. Herein lies the value of commonalities between generations — traditions give us not only a point of connection to the past but form our identity. This is true of music as well.
Rising bluegrass artist Billy Strings is well aware of that connection, and sought to honor it with his new album “Me/And/Dad,” released on Friday, Nov. 18. For this record, Strings went into Nashville recording studio, Sound Emporium, with his father Terry Barber to track the bluegrass staples he had been playing with his father since childhood. Strings and Barber are on guitar and vocals. The album also features mandolinist Ron McCoury, bassist Mike Bub, fiddler Michael Cleveland and Rob McCoury on banjo.
It’s an especially poignant project coming from Strings, whose style of bluegrass mingles with psychedelic rock and makes use of pedalboard effects. Strings is a student of the old masters with his father being the gateway to those traditional bluegrass records. “Me/And/Dad” is a reminder that Strings can pull off a standard just as well as one of his originals.
It is apparent that Strings has spent a lifetime with these tunes, and that his father is the perfect picking partner for him. They meet on these songs as equals, both possessing strong skill and an unspoken understanding of each other as musicians and people. Strings and Barbers’ renditions are faithful to the classic versions while possessing a personal quality.
Not only are the songs themselves part of the family tradition, but the guitar which Barber plays on “Me/And/Dad” is a family heirloom. The story of his father’s Martin D-93 guitar is an improbable one. When the family came upon tough times and were in need of money, Barber sold the Martin D-93. Years later, when Strings was searching online for a used acoustic, he came across his father’s guitar and was able to buy it back. It’s hard to believe that there is not some sort of family magic with this guitar and it certainly comes through on the record.
In this collection of tracks, Strings and Barber trade off vocals and play the parts they would in their usual jam sessions. The vibe of “Me/And/Dad” is very casual, as if they were recorded spontaneously playing around a campfire or on the front porch of the family home. The strong, youthful presence of Strings’ voice with the tenderness of Barber’s voice fit together harmoniously.
Some memorable moments on “Me/And/Dad” include “John Deere Tractor,” a heartfelt tribute to country life, which was originally released as a single. The opening track “Long Journey Home” is one of the most brisk tunes on the album, a fun display of the father and son duo’s high-level picking skills. The record closes with the haunting “Heard My Mother Weeping,” in which Strings’ mother Debra lends her voice.
There are two instrumentals on “Me/And/Dad.” The Celtic-influenced “Frosty Morn,” a beautiful gem in this collection, features Strings on the banjo. “Peartree” begins with audio of Barber asking Strings if he remembers being shown this song as a young child and then they break into a lively and charming rendition — Strings surely remembers it. “Peartree” is a Doc Watson composition, a bluegrass artist who played a major role in Strings developing his love of the genre.
“Me/And/Dad” is a charming family affair that fits right into the Strings’ catalog while standing out as a valuable example of how bluegrass thrives as it’s passed down through generations. It is both inspiring and an enjoyable listen, the perfect reference point for the old masters and the new keepers of the genre.
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