Words: Erika Rasmussen
Photos: Jerry Friend
On Friday, February 11, at the Greensboro Coliseum, we gathered at the Home of the ACC Basketball Tournaments. This Billy Strings show would be like a Tournament of Champions. Imagine a dream team of bluegrass, psychedelic, and metal artists, that come together to form an otherworldly mash-up in the form of one artist.
The first half tipped off with "Dust in a Baggie", a song about methamphetamine use and the cruelly harsh toll it takes. Billy's father died of a heroin overdose and his life has been a battle to win, but Billy's prize is not a college sports title, but the independence away from his upbringing. "Hellbender" was up next, proclaiming "Only one way to do it, just to grin and bear through it; With a chip on my shoulder, I'm another day older; And I swear I could break down and cry". I always really enjoy the following composition by Billy Strings & Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass: "In the Morning Light". After spending a childhood without a stable birth family, Strings' mother and stepfather turned their lives around about the time he graduated. This song was inspired by finally having that consistent love in his life, and the love of his fiancee. This was a time that he was trying to learn how to let more love in. "I think rock bottom was back there, and now it's morning. It's time for the sun to come up again, and it's time for it to dry the rain." A well-deserved victory after a tough-fought season. Another favorite of mine in the first set was "Samson and Delilah". This Gospel-Blues traditional song was made famous by the Grateful Dead, but Billy has only played it once before (Asheville, 10/31/21). Of course, this is a song about the ultimate battle. "Slow Train" exposes his weariness of the constant fight against that which we call life: "And I'm gettin' tired of goin' down the track; Still honey, I ain't never comin' back".
Like all athletes, us wookies need a halftime. Er, set break. This is a time to catch your breath, drink a Gatorade (or Jim Beam, whatever), plot your next strategy, and reflect on the first half. If you're more motivated or more desperate than me, you can even try to go the restroom. Then you'll really be fighting for your life.
The second half saw "Fire on My Tongue" first off. My middle-aged-self felt the line "And the weariness of we who stay behind" deep in my soul. "Clinch Mountain Backstep" by The Stanley Brothers made another appearance. Billy has been playing this since '18 Delfest, but did you know that The Stanley Brothers' band was the Clinch Mountain Boys from '46 to '66, hence the song title? Billy and his band next treated us to "Must Be Seven" with thought-provoking lines such as "Like there wasn't something wrong; Like he couldn't see the sorrow in the soul". Though not basketball-related, the next song "Pyramid Country" was inspired by Billy's collaboration with the skate brand of the same name. Baller. I'm so pleased they included "Show Me the Door" by the talented mandolin player, Jarrod Walker, & Christian Ward. It speaks of the struggles of love, more than life: "She lit me up like powder, and she scattered me like dust". Like a bunch of co-eds in the background of College GameDay, everyone went wild for "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town", the classic Pearl Jam tune. As Billy has overcome his humble beginnings so triumphantly, I can only imagine how he feels about singing "I changed by not changing at all; Small town predicts my fate". The next Stanley Brothers medley to be featured was "If I Lose": "If I lose a hundred dollars while I'm trying to win a dime, My baby she's got money all the time." Damn fine song and a rockin' cover, for sure. Billy next went into the NC great he'd mentioned at the beginning of the show: Doc Watson. Doc is to bluegrass what Coach K is to college basketball. And then some. Billy and the gang launched into "The Train That Carried My Girl from Town" and then "Black Mountain Rag", another traditional song that was often covered by Doc Watson.
As we all limped into overtime (a.k.a., the encore), Billy rolled out his original song, "Meet Me at the Creek". Like an exhausted player easing into an ice bath, Billy intones, "Well the water keeps a churning while my poor heart is burning; Muddy water take my pain away". May Billy's latest successes and this tour be a balm to ease his travel-weary body and his life-weary heart. The depth and breadth of his life experiences add that unique color to his music, and I hope that playing these tunes provide the therapy for him that they give to us as fans. Only a professional who's played 'em all can play like that. Hang his flannel tie-dye jersey up in the rafters, for he is already in the hall of fame of players in my book.