Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Billy Strings and Granger Smith

Billy Strings – Me And Dad

Billy Strings did the double at this year’s IBMA Awards for bluegrass music, retaining the Entertainer award from 2021 and winning Song of the Year too. It’s natural that he should walk away with it, after two dates in London in March 2022 and a return visit on December 7 either side of a packed festival schedule promoting his album Renewal, discussed here.

Astoundingly, Billy is playing three dates in Nashville in February: one at the Ryman for 2400 people, two at the Bridgestone Arena in front of 20,000. In May it’s two dates at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and a jaunt to California and Texas. That’s a lot of bluegrass fans!

The album title explains itself, with dad Terry helping his son on some old favourites. Dad takes lead on several tunes, including Life To Go, a George Jones song in the character in jail for 18 years so far ‘and still got life to go’ and Little Blossom, a bittersweet waltz about mum and dad written in 1959 by Hank Thompson.

The instrumental ditty Frosty Morn sounds effortless, although it takes a lot of effort to be so. Toes will tap to the delightful Little Cabin Home on the Hill. Stone Walls and Steel Bars (‘I’m a three-time loser!’) and I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years are familiar tunes which are brought to life by modern recording techniques, so each pluck of string vibrates in the listener’s ear.

Likewise, AP Carter’s Wandering Boy reaches across the decades to an audience who may have come to bluegrass and ‘old time music’ via Billy’s experimental style which has been compared to the great American jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. (We call our jam bands ‘prog’ in the UK. Perhaps lots of prog acolytes will turn up to Billy’s UK sets.)

The set is well chosen. I Heard My Mother Weeping closes the album with a vocal from Billy’s own mum, who is upset at her son being sent to jail. John Deere Tractor, once interpreted by the Judds, is a letter written from son to mum (‘I guess my city days are done’), while Dig A Little Deeper (In The Well) includes a verse where the narrator recalls his dad’s old words. It impresses me that it was first performed by the Oak Ridge Boys in 1979, given that it has become a bluegrass standard.

Michael Cleveland’s fiddle joins the pair on the Doc Watson compositions Peartree and Way Downtown, which sound like the best kind of front porch jam. Emma John’s marvellous book on bluegrass, Wayfaring Stranger, shows that you don’t need to cram into an arena to see bluegrass done well, but it helps if you can make a bit of money doing it.

Granger Smith – Moonrise

When I started listening to country music properly in 2015, Granger Smith was always on the radio with songs like If The Boot Fits, Backroad Song and Happens Like That. His comic creation Earl Dibbles Jr amused me, and I have been impressed with how he and his family have bounced back from personal tragedy involving the death of a child. They have since had a boy named Maverick, born in August 2021.

Granger seems to alternate between big projects like his two-volume Country Things set from 2020 and his movie soundtrack They Were There, a tribute to veterans. He’s successful enough to open for Garth Brooks on one date of his massive tour, but lacks the awards to make him a household name. Indeed, his last single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads missed the top 40 at radio and You’re In It, a delectable confection, stalled at 36.

Nonetheless, he is signed to Wheelhouse Records, a subsidiary of Broken Bow, and produces his music in a contemporary style which never detracts from his Texan roots. Listen to the fiddle and stomp that introduces Tailgate Church Pew, where he makes his truck his place of prayer.

Damn Guitar is 100-percenter, with words and music by Granger (rare enough in modern country music to still be notable). There’s a great but sombre line about how he has held his ‘six strings of therapy’ more than any girl, which will resonate with any songwriter and should find a big audience if given the right push.

The album’s impact track, which has a music video, is In This House, co-written by Mitchell Tenpenny and ticking off lots of rural cliches (‘watch football after Sunday service’) that are true to Granger’s life. Broke In is one of those songs where old things still hold up and ‘how it ain’t broken, it’s just broke in’ (smart), while Black Suit is an example of ekphrasis, a classical term meaning an extended description of an item (‘don’t fit like my blue jeans’). It reminds me of how Brad Paisley dared himself to write a song about water, or Natalie Hemby wrote one called Taxidermy.

Rodney Clawson, who has also written fine ekphrastic songs about dirt and one of those nights, was in the room for Something To Go On, another radio-friendly love song full of joy and levity. Ditto two passionate love songs, Still Find You and Never Been, while on Something Is Changing Granger likens himself, ‘a simple man’, to a ‘rock that needs something to lean on’. It seeks to change the conversation and is a very modern idea of how men should open up to someone as they grieve.

Granger puts the songs (many of which began life as sketches which he had lying around in notebooks) in the mouth of Will, his character in the forthcoming movie also called Moonrise, which will fight all those Christmas movies and Avatar 2 for viewers this holiday season. Forever Forward seems to wrap a bow on the story: ‘I don’t have to move on, I write it down in the words of a new song’ is a key lyric in a song about holding on, keeping on and being strong. I also like the rhyme of ‘brick and mortar’ with the song’s title. The album’s title track, where Granger flies so high he can see fireworks from above, is likely the end credits music.

I hope Granger and Earl come to the UK, perhaps on a family vacation, in 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: