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Bluegrass icon Billy Strings brings it back home on new album with his dad

Bluegrass icon Billy Strings (right) recorded his new album <em>Me/And/Dad</em> with his stepdad, Terry Barber. The album features songs that Strings learned from Barber during his childhood.
Joshua Black Wilkins
Sacks And Co.
Bluegrass icon Billy Strings (right) recorded his new album Me/And/Dad with his stepdad, Terry Barber. The album features songs that Strings learned from Barber during his childhood.

Even as a toddler, Billy Strings seemed to understand bluegrass.

"When he was in his highchair, and I had a friend over and we were playing one day, I looked over and he's right in rhythm with his little wrists," says Terry Barber, Strings' stepdad. "And I said, 'Wow.' It just projected from there."

Barber had stepped in to raise Strings after his biological father died of a heroin overdose.

"It's such a tender thing, this man stepping in and raising me and my brother, because he loved my mother and us," Strings told NPR.

Barber taught Strings how to play bluegrass guitar, introducing him to the music of legends like Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and David Grisman.

"I think he's the best guitar teacher in the world," says Strings. "I was his rhythm player, you know? I was his little sidekick."

Fast-forward to today, and Billy Strings is one of the most celebrated bluegrass musicians in America; his 2019 album Home won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Now, he's out with a new album called Me/And/Dad. He recorded the album with Terry Barber, something he says he's always wanted to do.

"Since I've been nineteen, I've been on tour, I haven't looked up," says Strings, "and I'm thirty now, and over those years, I've gotten a little scared about, 'well what if I never picked my head up for long enough to make a record with my dad?' That's terrifying, you know?"

On the album, the two play many of the same songs that Strings learned from Barber decades ago, like the classic bluegrass tune "Long Journey Home." Strings even managed to track down the guitar that Barber used to play, which he had been forced to sell years ago in order to pay off a bill.

"When I'd seen that I was like, 'No, no way, no way," remembers Barber. "I almost fainted. The tears were falling, and feelings were just unbelievable. It was beautiful."

Strings sees the album as a celebration of his family's ability to come through harder times, which includes substance abuse, poverty and loss.

"I'm just so proud of everyone. And it's just because of what he taught me, you know, how to play," says Strings. "And I've taken that and used it to make myself a good life, you know? And he's the reason that it is this way."

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.