The musical whirling dervish known as Billy Strings blew through America’s heartland on Friday, making landfall at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium in Tennessee to open up a two-night stand. Coming in hot off a string of southeastern tour dates in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, the westward-bound bluegrass picker delivered a jam-packed, 25-song show in the Volunteer State.
Even the most casual indulgers of bluegrass music cannot deny the sheer volume of mountain songs about trains. The musician born William Apostol wasted no time delivering a locomotive tribute with the opening “Old Train”. With its line “I think I’ll stay a while,” those of us with Saturday night tickets were inclined to agree.
Though we’ll all stay a while, that didn’t deter Billy from dropping straight into “Turmoil & Tinfoil” for a surprise early highlight. Cutting through any of the get-to-know-you chit-chat, Strings made the jump beyond small-talk to an in-depth musical conversation. Banjo picker Billy Failing pontificated at length via his five-string before mandolinist Jarrod Walker entered the chat to offer his own opinions. Bassist Royal Masat kept a steady beat to facilitate discussion before Strings resumed his rightful place at the head of the table.
When traveling out of state, out of town, or even across the street for a show, there is the phenomenon of the “worth it” jam—that moment when all of the miles, hotel bills, cab fares, and manhandling by security washes away in the moment as you’re reminded why you didn’t just stay at home and watch the Ween stream. That moment came almost immediately as Jarrod lit off sparks from his mandolin amidst the turmoil and the tinfoil.
Much like shaking out any tension following an intense yoga pose, Strings and company rattled off a few quick-hitters to bring everyone back to reality following the depths of “Turmoil & Tinfoil”. Runs through “Know It All”, “Gold Rush”, “Love & Regret”, and “Hellbender” amassed a more traditional first-set feel. Leftover Salmon‘s “Down In The Hollow” brought the energy back up to a slow-building ruckus before we all climbed aboard a “John Deere Tractor”.
Billy Strings – “John Deere Tractor” (Lawrence Hammond) – 2/18/22
With everyone fully reacclimatized to the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, it was once again time for Billy and his bandmates to plunge into the outer reaches of improvisation with “Highway Hypnosis”. A song Billy wrote with “all-around great ass dude Ronnie McCoury“, the Home track developed into a build and drop worthy of dubstep. The entire Auditorium buzzed with the humming of the titular drone.
“Likes Of Me” appeared to begin the wind-down of set one before Billy fired off another major jam vehicle in the first set with “Meet Me At The Creek”. Coming after the second-song “Turmoil & Tinfoil”, this first frame bridged the gap between first and second set to show that everything was on the table and nothing was out of the question in Knoxville. To that end, Billy’s leads in the Turmoil & Tinfoil were loose and experimental like a man who had nothing to lose and was willing to try anything.
Following a brief intermission, Billy returned to take us deep inside this “Hollow Heart” of his. With Valentine’s Day still visible in the rearview mirror, Strings offered his tender ballad, “In The Morning Light”. The delicate musical ecosystem lulled by the Renewal track was immediately smashed like a brick through a window as Billy stopped on a dime to belt out Widespread Panic‘s “All Time Low”. Not far away in Columbia, SC, the Athens, GA originators of the song performed it during the second set of their show at Township Auditorium.
With the band running red hot it was only logical to take a run through “Fire Line”. Billy’s ecologically-minded original opened up into a wide jam that the guitarist burst through the middle of with a piercing lead solo. This begat a series of segues that ran through “Running the Route” and “Running” before a break in the action brought about “Show Me The Door” where Billy played heartstrings like guitar strings.
It was then that a musical duel of sorts ensued between Walker and Failing in The Stanley Brothers‘ “Ralph’s Banjo Special”. Over whose honor they were dueling I cannot say for certain, but the two fierce warriors settled their differences to come together for a barn-burning “How Mountain Girls Can Love”.
With still plenty of time on the clock, it came as a shock to see Walker, Failing, and Masat depart the stage. Our faithful host, Billy Strings, stuck around to deliver solo takes on Rabon Delmore and Alton Delmore‘s “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and Charles Wesley‘s “Am I Born Die”, the solitary nature of the performances reminiscent of Billy’s time busking on the street barely ten years ago.
The rest of the band returned as Billy showcased just how far he’s come with the opus “Away From The Mire”. The perfect mix of lyrical depth and improvisational possibilities, the Home track afforded Billy the opportunity to strut his stuff across both ends of the stage, climbing on top of speakers for his rightful rockstar moment. The second set then evaporated into the ether like some “Long Forgotten Dream”.
Taking the stage once more for the encore, proud Tennessee resident Billy Strings offered a tribute to the state he now calls home with Jimmy Martin‘s “Tennessee”. Strings and company return to the Knoxville Civic Auditorium tonight, February 19th, for one more go-’round.
For a full list of upcoming Billy Strings tour dates, head here.
Setlist: Billy Strings | Knoxville Civic Auditorium | Knoxville, TN | 2/18/22
Set One: Old Train (Nikki Pedersen, Herb Pedersen), Turmoil & Tinfoil, Know It All, Gold Rush (Bill Monroe), Love & Regret, Hellbender, Down In The Hollow (Leftover Salmon), John Deere Tractor (Lawrence Hammond), Highway Hypnosis, Likes Of Me (Jerry Reed)  > Meet Me At The Creek (9:57)
Set Two (10:21): Hollow Heart, In The Morning Light, All Time Low (Widespread Panic), Fire Line > Running the Route > Running, Show Me the Door, Ralph’s Banjo Special (The Stanley Brothers) > How Mountain Girls Can Love (The Stanley Brothers), Brown’s Ferry Blues (Rabon Delmore, Alton Delmore) , Am I Born To Die? (Charles Wesley) , Away From The Mire, Long Forgotten Dream (11:32)
Encore: Tennessee (Jimmy Martin) (11:37)
 All Apologies tease
 Inspector Gadget tease
 BS Solo