Billy Strings & Don Julin: Fiddle Tune X
Incendiary American roots duo Billy Strings and Don Julin tap into the vein of the earliest bluegrass music on their new album Fiddle Tune X, back when bluegrass was a rough-and-tumble art form pouring out of the Appalachian mountains, made with great virtuosity and huge attitude. With just two instruments (guitar and mandolin) and two voices, this duo has been tearing up stages across America and generating huge buzz based on their intense live shows. Drenched in sweat, grimacing like a banshee, howling like a bluegrass berserker, and picking with such ferocity that he’s been known to break three strings in one song, 22-year-old guitarist and singer Billy Strings could have tumbled out of coal country in the old mountains, tattoos and all, but actually hails from Michigan, where he met mandolinist Don Julin. Older in years and experience, Strings’ musical partner Julin has carved out a lengthy career at the forefront of acoustic mandolin music, known for his wide versatility, powerful picking technique, and remarkable creativity on this humble instrument. On stage, the two egg each other on to more and more intense riffs and improvised breaks, pushing harder and harder on their own abilities to try to break through to new levels of musicianship. There’s a reason that they were called “the unholy child of Pantera and Tony Rice” by The Bluegrass Situation, and they show this intensity on their new album, Fiddle Tune X.
Recorded live, Fiddle Tune X reflects the hard-traveling life of Billy Strings and Don Julin. These tracks were recorded in a snowed-in cabin in Bliss, Michigan, a bar in Ludington, MI, a packed house concert in New York, a church in Lake Ann, MI, an Elks Club in Cadillac, MI, and the last song was cut in the Third Man Records’ recording booth in Nashville. Each song was recorded around one microphone, with either Don or Billy moving in and out of range to take the lead. It’s a tricky recording technique (and also a hallmark of traditional bluegrass performance) that accounts for how vibrant these recordings sound. Since it’s live, you can hear a bit more than just the music, which was the plan. As Don, who engineered the recording, explains, “Upon careful listening, you will hear a variety of distortions and noises, ranging from mechanical and electronic noises to audience comments and traffic sounds, and we feel that all of this adds to the realness of the recording.” This open-minded approach to music is also reflected in the diversity of the tracks on the album. There’s plenty of fire-breathing bluegrass here (check out the six minute tour de force on “Little Maggie”) but there are also moments of surprising subtlety, like the slow-rolling Doc Watson-inspired “Walk On Boy,” or the soft beauty of Julin’s mandolin on Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” Throughout the album, however, there’s no doubt that Strings and Julin are out to explode this art form, not only through the passion of their performance, but also through the cutting-edge instrumental twists and turns they take on each song.
Listen to Billy Strings & Don Julin’s cover of “Poor Ellen Smith” on Fiddle Tune X and you can hear that backwoods howl that first electrified a nation through the early music of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Mountain music was never made to be safe; this was music born out of hard-working, hard-hit lives, from people whose voice was systematically suppressed by the mainstream. Bluegrass started off with a howl to be heard, and this same spirit is alive and well today in Billy Strings & Don Julin.