Billy Strings connects with bluegrass roots
Billy Strings is a phenomenon, and one of the most popular young bluegrass guitarists today.
Billy Strings opens for Greensky Bluegrass, 8 p.m. Jan 31, Penn’s Peak, Jim Thorpe.
Rolling Stone named him one of the Top 10 “New Country Artists to Know” in 2017, and in 2018 published an article hailing him as “one of the latest breakneck guitar pickers to emerge in the bluegrass world.”
Named one of six “New Rising Stars of Bluegrass” by Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2017, the 26-year-old opened for the Del McCoury Band at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, once the site of the Grand Ole Opry.
Strings was nominated for the “Emerging Artist of the Year,” as well as the coveted “Guitarist of the Year Award” at the 2018 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards show in Raleigh, N.C.
Huffington Post proclaimed Strings’ debut LP, “Turmoil and Tinfoil,” as one the best albums of 2017. That year, the album hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart.
Strings, born William Apostol in Michigan where he grew up, moved to Nashville three years ago.
“I grew up in a little town called Ionia. Now I get to spend a lot of time playing music with people I look up to,” says Strings in a phone interview.
Strings’ father, Terry Barber, was a bluegrass guitar picker on the Michigan music scene. Barber introduced him to traditional bluegrass at a young age.
“I was lucky to have been born into a very musical family,” says Strings. “My dad is a great musician, so he taught me how to play when I was little. By the time I was seven or eight years old, I could keep up with him on some bluegrass songs.”
Strings’ father introduced him to the music of Doc Watson. “Once I got interested in that, I dug deep. I wanted to learn as much as possible.”
As for his other inspirations, Strings recounts, “Obviously, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Ralph and Carter Stanley, all the greats. That’s what I was raised on.
“Later on, I wanted to play music with people that were my age. So in middle school, I started to get into heavy metal. I joined a band and we played some shows. That was really the first time I was onstage.
“So I learned how to play music, playing bluegrass and learned how to perform, playing metal.”
As to the odd connection between metal and bluegrass, Strings says, “Yeah, it’s a tricky little torturous friendship there.”
Strings’ debut album, “Turmoil and Tinfoil,” was produced by Glenn Brown of Greensky Bluegrass, and includes well-known Nashville pickers, such as Miss Tess, Molly Tuttle, John Mailander, Shad Cobb and Peter “Madcat” Ruth.
“It’s got some bluegrass and some old-time music and some psycho sounds from the future, some space sounds, some banjo tones, some synthesizers and all sorts of weird stuff.
“It’s got a little bit of everything on there. I like to think of it as a bluegrass album from the past and the future at the same time.”
Members of Strings’ band include Billy Failing, banjo; Royal Masat, bass, and Jarrod Walker, mandolin.
The band has been together for one year, but Strings and Failing have played together for three years.
“I met Royal [Masat] at a Phish concert and we’ve been good friends ever since. Jarrod [Walker] was the third to come along and he’s a very solid mandolin player. He’s one of the best I’ve heard.”
Strings started recording his second album in Nashville this month, set for released at the end of 2019. Strings writes his own songs and the band performs a mixture of originals and covers.
He enjoys playing large concert venues. “We play places where we can sell 1,000-1,500 tickets, and if the venue lets them party and hang out and stand up, it’s a really fun time.
“I like it when people are up and partying because that energy comes back at us and then we’re able to reciprocate. When people are dancing and putting out all that love, I can play much better.”
He says bluegrass performers tend to stand still and play into the mic, but he prefers getting the audience involved and releasing more energy.
“With other [types of] bands, there’s pyrotechnics and light shows and singers running up and down the stage. I try to have more of that kind of attitude. We’re playing acoustic instruments but we can still rock out.”
When asked about the popularity of bluegrass, he says, “I think now there is sort of an uprising. I feel that Americana, bluegrass, old-time music, anything with a banjo in it, people are getting more familiar with it and there’s a lot of younger folks getting into it, which is amazing. [Bluegrass] is a treasure. It’s an American art form.
“It’s really neat to have the younger generation appreciate it, even myself. I like to think of myself as leading the charge. I have definitely gotten young kids into this music.”
Greensky Bluegrass, a five-piece American bluegrass-country band, was founded in Kalamazoo in 2000. Greensky has a huge following. Band members include Anders Beck, Michael Arlen Bont, Dave Bruzza, Mike Devol and Paul Hoffman.
“We have a deep history,” says Strings. “They’re basically like my big brothers. They’ve been a huge inspiration and in a lot of ways have taken me under their wing and helped me out. They’ve let me open for them on tours. They’re some of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever known.
“It goes down when we play. It gets gnarly. We have fun. Anders [Beck] loves to go deep with the jams. He loves to push the music over the edge. I learned how to have fun with music from those guys.”
Strings credits Greensky band members with giving him a deeper understanding of bluegrass, and a better appreciation for the Grateful Dead.
“I learned about freedom in music. Take your time with it, tease the music and push it and pull it and poke it and make fun of it and laugh and cry with it. Those guys can take you on these wild journeys. There’s no rules, no boundaries.”
Strings says 2018 was a “wild year” of gigs and extensive touring and he looks forward to more.
“We’re very thankful and grateful. Our cups are spilling over and we’re happy to be a part of this thing.”
Tickets: Penn’s Peak box office, 325 Maury Road, Jim Thorpe; pennspeak.com; ticketmaster.com; 800-745-3000