This episode of the Secret Chord Podcast tells the universal story of the evolution of the Human soul through four songs by Billy Strings.
Image: Rolling Stone
For those of you who don't yet know him, Billy Strings is a 29-year-old Bluegrass musician from Lansing, Michigan. He has essentially mastered that uniquely American genre and has also found an innovative way of fusing it with other musical styles. As it says on his website:
Strings grew up playing traditional bluegrass with his dad until he was introduced to a new generation of younger artists embracing acoustic music. That revelation led to his own willingness to branch out beyond bluegrass and his ability to pull in fans from every corner of the live music scene.
And he himself said, "when I grew up, I learned that I liked Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, so that influenced me, too."
So what I'd like to attempt here is to tell a universal story through a particular one. I'd like to explain the evolution of human consciousness (or mind or soul) through the music of Billy Strings.
I don't think it would come as a surprise to anyone that our minds evolve. Babies have a relatively low level of awareness that grows remarkably quickly over time. There's no comparing adolescents to infants in that regard and no comparing teens to adolescents. As all parents know, this is where the problems begin—when the kids are smart enough to have many opinions but simultaneously lack the knowledge base, temperance, and pattern recognition that comes along with life experience. There's a certain endearing arrogance to that stage of life. Strings hints at this in his excellent song Know It All:
That is off his 2021 release Renewal. Again from his website, it says: "serving as a reflection of Strings' diverse musical influences, Renewal reaches well beyond bluegrass with elements of heavy metal, jam bands, psychedelic music, and classic rock—even though it's still primarily an acoustic record."
Well, all I know is everything I've learned
And if I'm changing, that's the reason that I'll turn
Into someone I can trust
Before I turn back into dust
There's an answer, but I wouldn't be concerned
Well, I thought I knew it all
Till I crashed into the wall
Let me learn from my mistakes
And try to pick up all the pieces
On some level or at some point, we're all "know it all's." We have formed our opinions, made our choices, and have a deep and pervasive drive to hang on to them. In truth, it is healthy and good for our "know it all" attitudes to be "crashed against the wall" of the cognitive dissonance that we all experience. This process opens the door to growth. I say opens as many choose to not walk through it—to our detriment. As Pema Chodron taught, "only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us."
Ok, so how is that done? Primarily through honesty. It's not a coincidence that the first step of the 12 Step program of AA is "admit that you have a problem." This takes courage and humility, and where these qualities are lacking, there can be no admission and no forward motion. The soul in this state is a prisoner who chained itself down and consistently refused any and all offers of escape. (For GOT's fans, think of Theon Greyjoy when Yara comes to rescue him from Ramsay Bolton).
Billy has been very honest about his origins—which were far from simple. "My family is a trip, bro. I come from moonshiner, drug-dealing, partying, rock & rolling folks. Hillbillies," he said.
Some of his life was rather tragic, as outlined in Rolling Stone:
After his biological father overdosed on heroin when Strings was two, his mother, Debra, remarried. Strings considers his stepfather, a bluegrass-picking good-timer named Terry Barber, his dad. But as Strings was about to become a teenager, life changed. Both of his parents got hooked on meth, he says, and those regular bluegrass jam sessions devolved into nights of debauchery. "What used to be so beautiful — the camaraderie, the parties, the couple Busch Lights, and a couple joints — turned into meth, hardcore binges, no food in the fridge, and no parents, even though they're sitting right in front of me," Strings says. Disgusted, he moved out of his family's trailer when he was 13.
Honest admission and the revelation of his inner world are beautifully expressed in his song Secrets which is ostensibly about a romantic relationship and (which coincidentally is the second track on Renewal after Know It All):
You said a love that's kept in secret dies in darkness
And a soul needs to confess to be set free
So I'm lifting back the cover of my heart, dear
And hoping that you'll do the same for me
It's not too pretty, but it's open
It's the only way I know to tell you true
I'd walk the world alone before I'd ever walk away from you
If you can link your value to your wallet or a key chain
Or a locked wrought iron fence around your yard
Living check to check, a skinny tie around your neck
On stolen time and borrowed numbers off a card
You blink, and life is left behind you
There's no escape; that's just a fact
We're all a dollar short and
Every one of us is running out of track
Bluegrass grew out of the rough and tumble of life in the Appalachians in the 30s and 40s and often laments its hardships. It's also suffused with the faith and religiosity of those who lived through it. As such, there is often a behind-the-scenes hopefulness in spite of the painful circumstances. Once a soul has foundered on the complexities of human existence and has developed enough to admit its pain, ignorance, and fear, a new vista opens—one that allows moments of higher awareness to mingle with the lower ones.
This is akin to walking through the woods during a lightning storm. By and large, you can't see more than a few feet in front of you, but once in a while, explosive bursts of energy illuminate a much more vast terrain. This alternating light and dark (awareness and lack of awareness) shows us that we're on the right path. There may be miles to go and many hurdles, but we can walk with greater confidence.
Billy sings about this idea in a tune called Hide and Seek:
A twisted game of hide and seek
The stench of darkness and defeat
Another day without relief
Leaves me broken
Well, it's a dark time; I do believe
A cold wind's a-blowin' at my door
Incredible light; I'm gonna find
Where I don't have to worry anymore
This is the soul's journey. There is no one who avoids the confusion and pain of a lack of awareness. It makes sense that it's scary. This is all by design. It's a paradigm. It's the human condition and the human story—a quest to escape to the "incredible light," and though each path is different, we are all going to walk it. The only question is will we quit halfway through as Robert Frost's character almost did in Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening:
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
Or to resolve to complete the journey:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Those who make it will be privy to a kind of emotional and transcendental liberation that few of us are currently aware of. This is true freedom. One that allows your soul's inner being to sing forth in the deep satisfaction of true arrival. Billy sings about this concept in his song Freedom:
I want to walk, I can't sit down
I want the robe, and I want the crown
Fear, not the day when all is lost
This earthly wealth ain't worth the cost
Shadows and lights in pairs that cling
Allow your soul the right to sing
All through the night, the moon will shine
The whispers heard defeat the time