Billy Strings tossed the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” out of the window for his show at the historic Ryman Auditorium, which closed out a three-night hometown run in Nashville. After back-to-back sold-out mega shows at the 20,000-capacity Bridgestone Arena Friday and Saturday night that featured progressive bluegrass icons Béla Fleck and Sam Bush, his new-for-the-tour stunning light show, and general “Play it so the back row can feel it” vibe, the aesthetic was scaled way back for the much smaller 2,300-seat Ryman. Though the Ryman is known as the former home of the legendary Grand Ole Opry radio and stage show the historic hall was re-imagined with a much newer TV program, MTV Unplugged, in mind.

More specifically, Billy Strings used the Ryman stage to re-create the vibe of the fabled Nirvana episode of the music network’ long-running, mostly acoustic program. Candles and flowers lined the stage, instrumentation was toned down, and Billy and his band played in well-earned seats after their previous two nights of rocking. The setlist reinforced the fact that this wasn’t just some cosmic coincidence with covers of grunge-era luminaries like Mother Love Bone, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and, obviously, Nirvana. In fact, the only thing this homage was missing were Meat Puppets founders the Kirkwood Brothers, the accompanying sense of body odor that somehow permeated the broadcast, and a ratty cardigan sweater for Billy to sport.

After taking their seats and a little fine-tuning of their instruments, the band kicked the show off with a fine-as-wine “Fire Line” before stretching out with a “Reuben’s Train”, ultimately stacked into a jam sandwich with a tasty “Thirst Mutilator” filling. Bassist Royal Masat ditched his stand-up for an electric or “sideways bass”, as Billy put it, guitar and that change alone gave each tune a slightly different tone and tenor to match the unusual presentation. Songs that are innately familiar to regular fans like “While I’m Waiting Here” and the fun two-song, free-flowing “Taking Water” > “Ice Bridges” soon followed.

Billy Strings – “Fire Line”, “Reuben’s Train” (Traditional) [Pro-Shot] – 2/25/24

To further enhance and enrich the sound, cellist Nate Smith and jazzy drummer Jamie Dick joined the band for the rest of the set. This gave all of the more classic Billy tunes like “Meet Me At The Creek” and “Nothing’s Working” an eerier, unearthly vibe and transformed the first grunge era cover, Alice In Chains’ classic “Nutshell”, in some fun and fundamental ways. Phish‘s “Back On The Train” and first set closer, Leftover Salmon’s “Down In The Hollow”, got some unexpected help from the Travelin’ McCourys’ mandolin maven Ronnie McCoury and, in a total out-of-left-field move, Salmon’s unofficial mascot, a dancing Mayor McCheese (ably played by Lindsay Lou)!

Once the second set got underway with semi-standard takes on “Home”, “My Alice”, and “Heartbeat Of America” the band was rejoined by Smith and Dick and the extent of the Nirvana Unplugged tribute revealed itself. Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” was preceded by a heartwarming story about Billy’s youthful elementary school talent show appearances. Of note, that he pissed his pants, hid the crime behind his guitar, and ran away—however, he still showed the resolve to keep at it and win the talent show the following year with the very same Pearl Jam cover he shared Sunday.

Another grunge cover, Mother Love Bone’s “Crown Of Thorns”, and the follow-up Widespread Panic tune “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” came and went. “Pieces” and its successor “Highway Hypnosis” featured a little more Ronnie McCoury picking, adding to the party for good measure before he ducked away for the time being. As if to make the point of the night as clear as possible, Billy Strings and company closed the second set with a pair of Nirvana cover debuts, impressive takes on “Something In The Way” and “About A Girl” that beguiled an already all-in audience.

Billy Strings – “Something In The Way” (Nirvana) – 2/25/24

[Video: Cole Rector]

Billy Strings – “About A Girl” (Nirvana) – 2/25/24

[Video: Cole Rector]

After a short but needed stretching of the legs after so much seated playing, the band mostly ditched the chairs. Gathering around a single mic, the ad hoc band delivered a blend of the venue’s storied history and the spirit of the evening with a cover of country icon Hank Williams’ classic “I Saw The Light”. To help seal the deal and move the show itself into the annals of the Ryman, Strings added one more late-arriving guest to the vocal mix with Molly Tuttle. Her light but twangy, nasally falsetto offset all the deeper male voices perfectly and the whole presentation ended with a truly earned group bow to an Auditorium-shaking standing ovation.

After showing a scholarly understanding of bluegrass culture with a pure connection to its collective songbook and players, Billy Strings has earned the right to step outside the norms and conventions whenever he feels like it. To try such a daring yet low-key homage to another genre on such hallowed ground might be heresy to others; it’s just a cool way to cap off a weekend for Billy Strings. At this point, his fans have handed him a metaphorical blank check to do with as he will and if this homage is the kind of result we’ll be seeing more regularly then the future is brighter than ever for this new icon.

Billy Strings wraps his three-city run through the Southeast with a pair of shows at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena on Friday and Saturday. For tickets and a full list of tour dates visit his website. Check out a selection of fan-shot videos below from Cole Rector, with a full collection available on his YouTube channel.

Billy Strings – “Meet Me At The Creek” – 2/25/24

Billy Strings – “Nutshell” (Alice In Chains), “Red Rocking Chair” (New Lost City Ramblers) – 2/25/24

Billy Strings – “Back On The Train” (Phish) – 2/25/24

Billy Strings – “Down In The Hollow” (Leftover Salmon) – 2/25/24

Billy Strings – “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” (Pearl Jam) – 2/25/24

Billy Strings – “Crown Of Thorns” (Mother Love Bone) > “Leaders” – 2/25/24

Billy Strings – “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” (Widespread Panic) – 2/25/24

Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Ronnie McCoury – “I Saw The Light” (Hank Williams) – 2/25/24

View Videos

Setlist: Billy Strings | Ryman Auditorium | Nashville, TN | 2/25/24

Set One: Fire Line, Reuben’s Train (Traditional) [1] > Thirst Mutilator [2] > Reuben’s Train (Traditional), While I’m Waiting Here, Cold Cold World (Blaze Foley), Taking Water > Ice Bridges, Meet Me At The Creek, Nothing’s Working [3], Nutshell (Alice In Chains) [3], Red Rocking Chair (New Lost City Ramblers) [3], Back On The Train (Phish) [3] [4], Down In The Hollow (Leftover Salmon) [3] [4] [5]

Set Two: Home, My Alice, Heartbeat Of America, Show Me The Door [3], Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town (Pearl Jam) [3] [6], Crown Of Thorns (Mother Love Bone) [3] > Leaders [3], Pickin’ Up The Pieces (Widespread Panic) [3] [4], Highway Hypnosis [3] [4], Something in the Way (Nirvana) [3] [7], About A Girl (Nirvana) [3] [7]

Encore: I Saw The Light (Hank Williams And His Drifting Cowboys) [3] [4] [8] [9]

[1] “Third Stone From The Sun” (Jimi Hendrix) tease
[2] Slow intro
[3] w/ Nate Smith on cello and Jamie Dick on drums
[4] w/ Ronnie McCoury on mandolin
[5] Mayor McCheese danced across the stage, a nod to Leftover Salmon who originally released this song.
[6] Billy shared the story of winning his 4th grade talent show with this song, inspired by his mom’s love of music and Pearl Jam.
[7] FTP
[8] w/ Molly Tuttle on guitar
[9] Full band and guests around single mic