There’s a bit of a crisis going on in bluegrass music right now. For the first time in a century, the amount of talented, radio-worthy recordings is outnumbering the audience’s capacity for entertainment consumption. Even with this being the case, some players like Billy Gilman are standing out thanks to originality and a sense of honor when it comes to translating past virtues into present songcraft.
Take for instance a song like “Delta Queen;” where many in Nashville would struggle to find the center here without using something else as a template, we find this player ready to start from the ground up – strings first, everything else second – where it matters the most. Amidst all of the discord and rivalries, an artist like Mr. Billy Gilman is standing out to many of us as one of the brightest shooting stars to follow right now, and it’s probably not even for the reasons that you might expect.
While his new track “Delta Queen” is everything that traditional Americana fans look for when they’re shopping around for traditionalist jams to celebrate love and life, it’s the fact that the indie crowd is taking such a shine to this song that is truly worth talking about. Nobody in country or Americana cares about crossover appeal anymore, and if they do, they sure have a funny way of showing it. I say that because so many of the biggest names in Americana have made a decidedly ignorant decision to only record with artists and producers that are operating with the same mindset that they are.
That’s not only counterproductive to the growth of bluegrass music on a larger scale, but it’s flat-out dangerous to influence young artists with that kind of lazy, self-serving work ethic that never accomplished anything for any artist anywhere in history. The string play here is so perfectly aligned with the vocals that there’s never a doubt as to whether or not we’re listening to organic songcraft. The production quality steers us into harmony instead of toward a hook, which on its own is something I would attribute to this player’s love of the old guard in ‘grass more than anything else.
I’m sure not everyone will agree with me that “Delta Queen” will have as much of an impact as I believe it will if American bluegrass radio keeps it spinning for the rest of the year, but I’d ask them to just settle down and see what happens for themselves. The conceptualism of the great melodies in a performance like this one tells me that Billy Gilman is hardly interested in swagger alone; if he were, he wouldn’t sacrifice so much of his spotlight in the name of making the girth of these harmonies as potent as it is at the end of the day.
There might be a lot of strife going on in the commercial end of the business, but as far as creative force goes, Gilman is proving that this isn’t a generation lost to the angularities of marketing; in fact, it’s being led by artists who don’t care about anything other than keeping solid traditions alive.