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Bluegrass icon Billy Strings recorded his new album with his dad

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Billy Strings was born into music, like, literally. It was October 1992 in Lansing, Mich., and his mom, Debbie, was nine months pregnant.

BILLY STRINGS: It was my grandpa's birthday party, and everybody was out in the garage hanging or whatever. And yeah, my mom was there.

CHANG: And in the middle of the festivities there was a bluegrass jam session.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER SONG, "WAY DOWNTOWN")

TERRY BARBER: I was playing music with your uncle, Bobby (ph).

CHANG: Terry Barber was a friend of the family at the time, and as they played, Debbie went into labor and was rushed to the hospital.

BARBER: Yeah, I didn't get up to help. There was too many others doing that (laughter).

CHANG: But Terry stuck around in Billy's life. Two years later, when Billy's biological father died, Terry stepped in.

STRINGS: It's such a tender thing, this man stepping in and raising me and my brother because he loved my mother and us.

CHANG: And the bluegrass stuck around, too.

BARBER: When he was in his high chair and I had a friend over, and we're playing one day. I looked over, and he's right in rhythm with his little wrists. And I said, wow. It just projected from there.

CHANG: Terry taught Billy how to play guitar. Fast forward a couple decades, and today Billy Strings is one of the most celebrated bluegrass musicians in America. Last year, he won the Grammy for best bluegrass album, and now he has a new album out, which he made with his dad, Terry. It's called "Me/And/Dad."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWNTOWN")

BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER: (Singing) Way downtown, fooling around, took me to the jail.

STRINGS: I think he's the best guitar teacher in the world. He taught me about great music - Doc Watson and Bill Monroe and David Grisman and all these great players, you know? And he taught me how to get along in life. I mean, right now I'm sitting on a tour bus, and we just played in Philly for two nights. And we're heading towards Virginia playing some of the songs that he taught me. And, you know, I think that's a dad's, like, job is to teach their children how to get along in life. And now I have this great life thanks to what he did.

BARBER: God bless. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER SONG, "LONG JOURNEY HOME")

CHANG: What was Billy like as a kid?

BARBER: Quiet, funny and talented - but he was shy, too, at the same time.

CHANG: Oh, yeah?

BARBER: And if he missed a chord on the guitar, he'd frown. And I'd tell him, don't frown, honey. Just keep going. You'll do that a lot, and nobody will know it, only you. So frown at yourself inside your mind (laughter).

CHANG: Do you remember the first songs that Terry taught you how to play, Billy?

STRINGS: Yeah. Some of them are on the record.

CHANG: Oh, like, tell me which ones.

STRINGS: Well, "Long Journey Home" is definitely one of the first songs I ever learned.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG JOURNEY HOME")

BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER: (Singing) Lost all my money but a $2 bill, I'm on my long journey home.

STRINGS: He taught me G, C, and D, and then he gave me a capo. And he explained how if you know these three chords and you have this capo, you can play a lot of bluegrass songs.

BARBER: Yes, you can. That's the truth.

STRINGS: And like he was saying, I was learning the chords at that age. I never played any fancy stuff back then, none of the slick pickin' (ph). I was his rhythm player, you know? I was his little sidekick.

BARBER: And everybody loved it, too.

STRINGS: You know, if he wore Levi's, I wore Levi's. And if he wore ball cap, I wore a ball cap...

CHANG: Aw.

BARBER: That's...

STRINGS: ...You know?

BARBER: That is the gospel truth, there - so cute. Yeah.

CHANG: You were like Mini Terry sometimes.

BARBER: Yeah.

STRINGS: I just wanted to be just like my dad, and I still do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG JOURNEY HOME")

BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER: (Singing) Yes, I'm on my long journey home.

CHANG: So I want to ask about the guitar that's featured in this album because this - I'm talking about the Martin acoustic guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

CHANG: I understand it had quite a journey, right?

STRINGS: Well, that was the guitar that I learned from and, you know, the guitar that my dad was playing all through my childhood. And one day he had to sell it.

BARBER: We had a high bill, and I couldn't think of anything else to do. So I figured, you know, it's just material. And they're more important than anything, the kids and my wife. And I said, oh, well, that's it. I'll never see that thing again and - ever.

CHANG: Wait, so, Billy, how did you track it down?

STRINGS: Well, at the time I was just looking around on this unofficial Martin guitar forum, it's called, and I saw my dad's guitar go across the screen.

CHANG: Wait, how did you know that was the guitar? How were you sure?

STRINGS: I mean, I knew it was his guitar just by looking at it. It was a 93 - D-93, which is a limited edition, you know, guitar. There wasn't very many made, so it was already, like, there's a good chance that's my dad's because there's not that many anyways.

CHANG: Terry what went through your mind when you saw it in your hands again?

BARBER: When I seen it, I was like, no, no way, no way. He sets it up on a table, and I'm staring at it. I opened it, and I almost fainted. The tears were falling, and the feelings were just unbelievable. It was beautiful. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONE WALLS AND STEEL BARS")

BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER: (Singing) Well, I had it coming. I'm at the end of the line. No more stone walls, steel bars or you on my mind.

CHANG: What made the two of you decide all these years later, let's make an album together? Like, whose idea was that?

BARBER: That would be my son's.

STRINGS: I mean, I've always wanted to make a record with my dad forever. And, you know, since I've been 19, I've been on tour. I haven't looked up, and I'm 30 now. And over those years, I've gotten a little scared about, well, what if I just never pick my head up for long enough to make a record with my dad? That's terrifying, you know?

CHANG: But, Terry, was it sort of intimidating to go into the studio with Billy now that he's, you know, kind of a big deal? He did win a Grammy last year for...

BARBER: It was so...

CHANG: ...Best bluegrass album.

BARBER: Yeah, it was definitely a big deal for who he was playing with or playing with us. I just loved it. It's like - I felt like I was at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER SONG, "FROSTY MORN")

CHANG: Can I ask - I mean, when I think about some of the really hard years that I know your family has gone through in the past, like struggling with money, with drug addiction, with all kinds of loss, do you feel like this album is in a way about coming out on the other side of all that?

STRINGS: Everything I do is about that. We've been through some s***, and it's made us stronger. And...

BARBER: Right.

STRINGS: ...It's kind of like - I'm just so proud of everyone. And it's just because of what he taught me when I was a kid, you know, how to play and stuff, 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, you know?

CHANG: Terry, what does it feel like to hear such gratitude from Billy?

BARBER: It is beautiful. There's nothing like that. And I am so proud, like I said.

STRINGS: Well, you did a good job...

BARBER: Yeah.

STRINGS: ...You know?

BARBER: And I'm proud of that.

STRINGS: Like, if I ever have kids, I think I would just try to teach them everything you taught me. So that's what this record's about, is my dad. He's bad***.

BARBER: All right. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER SONG, "DIG A LITTLE DEEPER (IN THE WELL)"

CHANG: Billy Strings and his dad, Terry Barber - their new album is called "Me/And/Dad." Thank you so much.

BARBER: Thanks.

STRINGS: Thank you.

BARBER: Hey, Billy. Billy?

STRINGS: Yo.

BARBER: I love you.

STRINGS: I love you, too.

BARBER: You have a wonderful day, son.

STRINGS: Well, I'll call you after this.

BARBER: OK, sounds great.

STRINGS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIG A LITTLE DEEPER (IN THE WELL)")

BILLY STRINGS AND TERRY BARBER: (Singing) Don't be fooled by the things you see. If you want to get at the heart of... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.