Bluegrass just didn’t make any sense to me as a kid.
On paper, you’d think it would. I grew up in backwoods rural North Carolina, in an economically disadvantaged county with a single stoplight (today it has two). Yet bluegrass didn’t seem to exist in any context. I didn’t know anyone who played it – all the county folk I knew who owned guitars were more into Pantera – and the form just didn’t seem to have any relevance. Ironically, I didn’t really encounter active bluegrass musicians until I finished high school and moved to a city. Granted, the city was Asheville, but I think my point stands.
I couldn’t comprehend bluegrass as an expression of the rural isolation I knew so well from childhood. As an adult, though, I saw that it could be a living, breathing thing with the scorching technicality of speed metal or jazz and the raw ferocity of punk rock. Guitarist Billy Strings gets that, too, as his debut LP Turmoil and Tinfoil suggests.
“You can’t stop us from dancing / you can’t stop us from feeling high / we can’t help it if we’d like to stay out all night,” Billy (born William Apostol) sings in scorching opening cut “On the Line.” “It’s a cure for the bleakness / it’s a pill for the day-to-day / it’s just a way for me to shake loose the dust and the clay.” The message is pure humanistic punk-rock. In fact, change the instrumentation from fiddles and banjos to crunchy electric guitars and rifle-crack drums and replace his rich tenor vocal with a raspy sneer, and this could be a Rancid song. “You see it your way / I’ll see it mine and I’ll be fine,” Billy declares in unapologetic rebellion.
Some songs, like ballad “All of Tomorrow” and prison song “While I’m Waiting Here,” hew close to the high lonesome ideal, while the dizzying “Salty Sheep” reveals Billy’s guitar chops as he goes head to head with flatpicker Bryan Sutton of Hot Rize and Kentucky Thunder fame. “Doin’ Things Right” is a punk-metal-grass scorcher, while the nervy “Turmoil and Tinfoil” and “Living Like an Animal” explore that demented, Gothic weirdness that crops up, time and again, in the American folk tradition.
And then there’s the noise – eight minutes of it, in fact – that makes up closing track “107.” At first it sounds like the howl of an approaching storm, and then it breaks into beeps and boops and squeals, sounding less like a cut on an acoustic album and more like something you’d encounter at Knoxville’s experimentalism-obsessed Big Ears Festival. And with its Sonic Youth-ish noisy backing and spoken-word metaphysical narrative, “Spinning” sounds more like one of the acid-fried interstitial cuts on Beck’s monumentally strange Stereopathetic Soulmanure than anything traditionally rootsy.
But then, bluegrass has never existed in a vacuum. Billy knows this, and his respectable debut is the proof.