Guitarist Billy Strings on crafting his own brand of bluegrass
The speed with which Billy Strings flies his fingers across the strings of his guitar is stupefying. Not surprising – he'd already picked out his dream gig back in kindergarten, writing, "When I grow up, I want to be a blue grass player."
"I mean, that is amazing, first, to just even know what that was at that age," said correspondent Conor Knighton.
"I mean, I was already, like, a sort of musician already," Strings replied.
Billy Strings (born William Apostol) earned his nickname while growing up in central Michigan, playing guitars almost as big as he was, playing with musicians decades older than he was. His stepfather Terry Barber taught him how to play: "Playing bluegrass all night, my dad was the life of the party. And I was like, 'Man, that's what I wanna do.'"
But as Strings got older, he noticed that the parties at the trailer park where he lived never seemed to stop: "It was amazing. And then, you know, somewhere, those parties kind of started to get a little darker, and people started going to jail. As a little kid I'm, 'Oh, man, what's goin' on?'"
Strings said his parents had fallen deep into methamphetamine addiction. In his song "Taking Water," from his Grammy Award-winning album "Home," Strings sings about his memories of home:
Friends & loved ones falling down
Can't you hear that mournful sound?
Strings said, "It just felt like if I was there, I was gonna become an addict, or go to prison, or end up dead somehow."
He moved out of the house at 13, then to Traverse City, Michigan, after high school. After a brief stint playing heavy metal, he started crafting his own brand of bluegrass. "I learned how to play music by playing bluegrass around a fire with my dad and stuff. But I learned how to perform in a metal band."
When Strings is on stage, it's always a high-energy affair – a departure from traditional bluegrass legends who seemed to pride themselves on their stoicism. As Strings described it: "It's better if you just have no expression, if you just look like a statue. That's the best! And even better yet if you look like you're just not even stoked to be there."
Knighton said, "You look very stoked to be there."
"I am!" he laughed. "I am very stoked to be there!"
His fans as just as passionate. Strings has attracted a group of admirers who travel from show to show - a Deadhead-esque following typically associated with jam bands. "I don't really think of us as a jam band that much," he said. "We kinda jam. Maybe. I'd like a more sophisticated word."
How about "The Future of Bluegrass"? That's how American Songwriter Magazine has described Strings. And last month, he won Artist of the Year at the Americana Awards.
When he's not on the road, he's relaxing on the lake, fishing near the home he recently purchased in Nashville with his fiancée, Ally Dale. "I spend a lot of time out here, like for solitude, you know?" he said. And I just needed to find a place near this lake, 'cause this is where I fish the most."
String's next album – "Me and Dad" - comes out next month. It's a collection of bluegrass covers recorded with the man who taught him how to play.
He says his parents have been sober for the last decade. "So, like, you know, I talk about this stuff sometimes, and I worry that it will make my parents look bad or something. But, like, it's really a success story."
Strings, who turned 30 last week, said he's ready to stop focusing on the past and start thinking about the future … or at the very least, the present.
"My whole sort of adult life, I've been looking in the rearview mirror, dwelling on the past, dwelling on the years I lost with my folks, or dwelling on the poverty that I endured, or whatever. And I'm finally getting to a point now where I'm starting to gaze through the windshield instead, not worried about what's behind me or ahead really – just going for a cruise."
To hear Billy Strings perform "Long Journey Home," from his upcoming album "Me and Dad," click on the video player below:
For more info:
- billystrings.com | Tour info
- Thanks to Carter Vintage Guitars, Nashville, Tenn.
- Photos by Jesse Faatz (Instagram)
- Video by Lower Standards
Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Remington Korper.