Billy Strings isn’t one to mince his words, and the new music video for his song “Dealing Despair” doesn’t pull any punches either. Emerging from the ocean like some saltwater prophet, the bluegrass picker is surrounded by chaos, be it the news cycle, the Internet, or two suited men who spend the video fighting each other.
Directed by Ryen McPherson of the production company Critical Focus, “Dealing Despair” was shot during two days in Los Angeles. Besides the video’s more topical narrative arc, it also features live footage of Strings and his band, including banjo player Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat,and mandolin player Jarrod Walker.
Released last fall on Strings’ debut LP, Turmoil & Tinfoil, the song is a jet-fueled carnival of hatred and paranoia, with Strings as the ringmaster. “You know I don’t want your opinion, I just want to blow out your brains,” he sings over the cataclysm of stringed instruments. We talked to Strings, who will team up with Dierks Bentley for a benefit for Nashville roots radio station WMOT on March 26th, about his disturbing new video and the political bent of his songs.
The video starts with news reports of the Philando Castile police shooting. Was that or other incidents like it an inspiration for the song itself?
Yeah, absolutely. I actually wrote it a couple years ago after what happened in Ferguson and St. Louis with Mike Brown. It just seemed like I’d been seeing lots of stuff like that on the news, every other day someone was posting something terrible that had happened. It’s almost [like they are] putting violence up on some kind of pedestal and exploiting it.
The song is written from the standpoint of an antagonist. What made you want to write it that way?
It’s almost sarcastic … but told from somebody else’s point of view. Like, “Let’s fuel the fire, let’s run with the herd, let’s keep adding to the flame instead of doing something about it.” I was just super pissed off when I wrote that song. Later on, I was like, “Oh, that’s kinda crazy and even a little risky.” But I still feel the same way.
Folk music has a history of being political. As a bluegrass performer, do you feel it’s important for artists like yourself to carry that flag?
I think artists are the ones who start revolutions. I’ve seen online, especially with that song or things I’ve posted about our president, people are like, “You should just stick to music.” Are you fucking kidding me? No, this is exactly what I’m supposed to do. We need to do something. This is our platform. I’m on a stage, I have a microphone, I need to be able to raise my fist up and say, “This is for my LGBT community. This for all of you who have been put down your entire lives because of the color of your skin.”
There’s a foreboding sense on several of the songs on the album. Do you feel there’s a lot of politics in your songs or is “Dealing Despair” just more explicit about it?
This one is definitely more explicit. “Turmoil & Tinfoil” is about stuff I grew up with, like substance abuse, and that’s sort of political as well. It’s just referencing small-town America and poverty and drug abuse, and this whole underlying epidemic that we can’t seem to diagnose.
Do you feel more prepared to confront those topics than you have been in the past?
The further I get along in my career, the less I care about the band itself and money and fame. Now I feel like I’m starting to have a platform where I can make positive change. I think it’s important for artists to focus on that right now. I’m not trying to write songs for the radio. I want to make art that might strike a nerve with somebody.