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Bluegrass and the Evolution of Human Consciousness

Bluegrass and the Evolution of Human Consciousness

A story of the soul woven from the songs of Billy Strings.

Image: gratefulweb.com


Well, hello folks. It has been a long hiatus since I've been here to talk to you about music and its spiritual implications, it is great to be back. And we are hoping to do this on a more regular basis going forward.

So I am here today to talk to you about the music of the great Billy Strings. So for those of you who don't yet know him, Billy Strings is a 29-year-old bluegrass musician from Lansing, Michigan and he has essentially mastered that uniquely American genre and has found an innovative way of fusing it with other musical styles.

As it says on his own 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 fans in from every corner of the live music scene.

And he himself said, when I grew up, I learned that I like Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, and 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 if you will 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, which you're going to hear right now. Again his website says, “Serving as a reflection of Strings' diverse musical influences, (the album)“Renewal” reaches well beyond bluegrass with elements of heavy metal, jam bands, psychedelic music, and classic rock, even though it's primarily an acoustic record.”

So let's listen to that now. This is Know It All by the great Billy Strings.

Great song.

He sings here:

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.

And then the chorus is:

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-alls. We have formed our opinions, made our choices, and have a deep and pervasive drive to hang on to them. In truth, it's healthy and good for our know-it-all attitude to be crashed against the wall of cognitive dissonance that we all experience. This process opens the door to growth. I say “opens” as many choose not to walk through it to our own 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.”

Okay, so how is that done?

Primarily through honesty.

It's not a coincidence that the first step of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous 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 Game of Thrones fans, think of Theon Greyjoy when his sister Yara comes to rescue him from Ramsay Bolton.

Billy has been very honest about his origins, which are far from simple. As he says:

“My family is a trip, bro. I come from moonshiner, drug dealing, partying, rock and rolling folks.” Hillbillies, he says.

And some of his life was rather tragic, as was outlined in a recent Rolling Stone article.

It says there:

After his biological father overdosed on heroin when Strings was two, his mother Deborah 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 of bush lights and a couple of joints, turned into meth, hardcore binges, and 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, which coincidentally is the second track on Renewal after Know It All.

This is Secrets, once again, by the great Billy Strings.

Another fantastic tune.

Here he sings:

You said that 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.

And he goes on to say:

If you can link your value to your wallet or a keychain, 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 shorts and every one of us is running out of track.

Great lyrics.

Now, bluegrass grew out of the rough-and-tumble life of the Appalachians in the 1930s and 40s and often laments its hardships. It's also suffused with the faith and religiosity of those who live through it. As such, there's 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, new vistas open. 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.

Let's hear that one now.

And there's a third great tune.

I hope you guys like these as much as I do.

Here Billy sings:

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 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're all going to walk it.

The only question is, will we quit halfway through as Robert Frost's character did in his poem, Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening?

You know that one?

Here's how it goes.

My little horse must think it's queer to stop without a farmhouse near, between the woods and frozen lake the darkest evening of the year.

Or will we resolve to complete the journey?

As that poem goes:

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.

Gorgeous tune.

Here he concludes things by singing:

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 light 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.

Those are my thoughts on the soul's journey as told by the great young musician Billy Strings and the bluegrass tradition. I hope that you've enjoyed listening and considering these ideas and we hope to be back at least on a monthly basis from this point forward.

Thank you all for sticking with us and thank you so much for being here.

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