How Billy Strings Picked His Way to the Other Side

It’s not only the sound of bluegrass that Strings is reimagining but also the image. Sitting in his bus as 6,000 fans drifted into a sold-out amphitheater near Portland, Ore., this month, Strings held a svelte black vaporizer in one hand while gripping a $300 electronic bong with the other. Giggling beneath a hat that read “Sex & Drugs & Flatt & Scruggs,” he looked more like the thoroughly tattooed brother of Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo” than those bluegrass patriarchs.

He joked about covering “Dueling Banjos,” made famous in the film “Deliverance,” in full B.D.S.M. regalia and lampooned bluegrass posters for looking like antique-auction handbills. He extolled the hallucinogen DMT for making him a kinder person. Scrolling through his recent Spotify favorites, where Juice WRLD rubbed shoulders with Marty Stuart, Strings admitted that he was proud his friendship with Post Malone and his work with the masked Black singer RMR irked traditionalists. “I see racist crap all the time in bluegrass,” he said, with an uncharacteristic flash of anger.

RMR was floored by Strings’s rebellious streak, and happily agreed to sing on “Wargasm,” a plea for peace that suggests Alice in Chains going country. “This is music for old guys with a beard, but he didn’t fit that mold,” said RMR, who went viral in 2020 by covering Rascal Flatts amid a crew brandishing an armory. “He was dope, because he was different.”

As much as Strings revels in pushing boundaries, his songwriting taps the same heartland sincerity that Bill Monroe embraced nearly a century ago. Strings sings of modern American woes with disarming simplicity, even as he warps the sound. His first hit, “Dust in a Baggie,” sprints through the parable of a meth addict who heeds warnings too late. “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” his debut’s title track, mourns the way meth burned his own mother, her face ashen from exhaustion.

“Renewal,” Strings’s third album, largely delights in matters of the heart. In May, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend and tour manager, Ally Dale, so he celebrates finding love during the tender aubade “In the Morning Light.” But there’s also climate-change anxiety, small-town ennui and a nine-minute fight song for battling depression, “Hide and Seek.” Despite the song’s instrumental mirth, the chorus comes from the final text messages a friend sent before committing suicide.

Strings called this “sublimation,” or turning life’s darkest matter into positivity. It’s more powerful, he suggested, than any guitar trick. Through hours of therapy and nights of singing to strangers, he did that with his parents, too. These days, they are largely sober, though many of their old friends continue to party or remain in jail; his mother has developed what she called an addiction to coconut water. Strings once winced when they arrived at shows, but last year, he took his stepfather on tour. Their turmoil gave him a reason to succeed.

“They did pretty good, because look at me now,” he said, chuckling as he exhaled another tuft of weed smoke. “They couldn’t take care of me, but they taught me the thing that helped me take care of myself. As a parent, isn’t that your job?”

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