Billy Droze releases LP
“I got a ball an’ chain around my leg / I can’t run away” croons Billy Droze in his signature southern drawl in “Chain Gang,” one of the twelve songs to be discovered by listeners on his new record Renaissance. Out now everywhere quality bluegrass is sold and streamed, Renaissance is full of tracks like “Chain Gang” in the sense that lyrics and music are treated as equally important commodities in every composition here. Shenandoah teams with Droze for “Free Again” while Tommy Emanuel gets cooking on “That’d Be You,” but even in the collaborative numbers, there’s only one true force to be reckoned with in this elegant bluegrass LP.
In the first half of Renaissance, Billy Droze adheres to a pretty standard framework in the execution of his instrumental melodies (“Coal Fed Train,” “Shadows in the Room,” “Angels Watching over Me”), but by the second act, his attention has turned almost exclusively to the relationship between his oft-angsty vocal and the string section, with the fiddle catching more of his tonal ire than any other element in the music does. “All Is Well” is the only song on the latter half of Renaissance that puts rhythm before rhymes in painting us an aural portrait, but not once does the contrast between the material here come off as scattered or even mildly unfocused.
In songs like “She Broke My Heart in Spanish” and “When the Time Comes,” Droze proves that the multi-shaded sonic presentation in his latest album is more about demonstrating his artistic duality than it is reestablishing his sound or the traditional bluegrass model as we’ve come to know it. “Shackled and Bound” and Shenandoah’s “Free Again” both have plenty of sterling country twang, the likes of which have been fairly absent from the commercialized Nashville landscape in recent times, and for the most part none of the tracks on this LP cross me as being too puritanical for mass consumption.
Billy Droze has made some crisply-produced records in the past five years, but there’s something to be said about the cleanliness of the mix in Renaissance. It makes it possible for us to tune-into all of the subtle detail in any given performance (the choruses in “If It Wasn’t for a Song” and “Shadows in the Room” are the best examples of the mix’s quality distribution), but never allows for the intricacies to overwhelm the audience with their grandiosity – which, to be frank, is a difficult balance for even the most talented of artists alive to strike.
You can look high and low in the indie bluegrass and country lexicons this winter, but I do not think you’re going to find another album quite like Billy Droze’s most recent release any time soon. Renaissance amalgamates so many elements of his previous works together while steadily looking into the future of progressive bluegrass as it applies to Droze’s unrecycled artistic persona, and though it might not be the juggernaut that 2017’s unforgettable To Whom It May Concern still is, I believe it to be an excellent addition to his growing discography of classic recordings at any rate.