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“You gotta remember, I wasn’t really shit until about a year-and-a-half ago,” Bartees Strange reminds the crowd at Nashville’s Basement East just before performing his song, “Hennessy.” “I was just in my basement playing guitar. And my wife was like, ‘Do the dishes ... Do something other than play guitar.’ Now all I do is play guitar again [laughs].”
Strange (born Bartees Leon Cox, Jr.), is a sponge and synthesis of everywhere he’s been and everything he’s seen or heard. Born in England and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his experience performing with Brooklyn-based post-hardcore outfit Stay Inside and a later move to Washington D.C. have all contributed to his singular cosmic sound. He notes during the Rundown that, as an adolescent, his guitar heroes were Thomas Erak of the Fall of Troy and Omar Rodríguez-López of At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta. But in the next sentence, he confesses his love for Nelly.
“I always thought people aren’t really honest all the time with what they’re listening to,” asserts Strange. “I think a lot of people like a lot of things. I grew up in a pretty country town, and everyone would say they just like country music. But I was like, ‘You like the Nelly record, dog. You like Get Rich or Die Tryin', man, and you also like LeAnn Rimes and Toby Keith songs, and Brad Paisley’s guitar playing. But you also jam B2K and pop songs, too.’ I’ve never been afraid or ashamed of what I like, so it all goes into my own music.”
What he’s been saying through 2020’s Live Forever and 2022’s Farm to Table has been connecting with fans and critics alike. The magnetism is Strange’s smooth synergy. This allows him to touchpoint influences from albums like Nelly’s Country Grammar, At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, the National’s Boxer, and Phoebe Bridger’s Punisher into one harmonious, original package that has landed him on dozens of year-end lists and earned him an 83/100 rating from Metacritic for both of his full-length releases. [Editor’s Note: The Metacritic website uses their proprietary Metascore to distill the opinions of the most respected critics’ writing online and in print to a single number.]
Finishing his earlier thought to the Nashville crowd, he summarized: “‘Hennessy’ is a song I wrote when I was a kid, and growing up I thought there was all these weird stereotypes I had to get over to become who I am … [The hook of the song is meant] to kind of say, I know there’s all these expectations of what a black person does … but I just want you to see me for who I am and for what I’m trying to say.”
He might not have been “shit” 18 months ago, but he’s certainly on his way to becoming the something of the sort in the coming years. We’ll be here listening and appreciating.
Ahead of Strange’s final 2022 tour date supporting Farm to Table, Bartees and his guitar-playing compatriots welcomed PG’s Chris Kies onstage at Nashville’s Basement East to talk shop. During the interview, the trio explained how their “guitar wars” create a compatibly melodic arms race and structure their cohesive sound. We get introduced to a collection of oddball axes and go through their collective setups—which Strange fondly refers to as “Tone Capital”—assisted by a store’s-worth inventory of pedals. Plus, stick around after the Rundown to check out a heartfelt message from Bartees and the band’s wonderful performance of “Hennessy.”