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Audio Autopsy, 21st Century: Bluegrass King of the Hill, Grammy-Winner Billy Strings, 30
He's all of 30, and with the old soul of a pickin'n'grinnin' barefoot boy from Butcher Holler, he's also a fan of metal and classic rock! He may just get you to likin' bluegrass! Pull up a hay bale!
Pop Cultural Anachronism
At first glance, you’d think a bashful “aw shucks” is all you might get out of him as he chomps on a strand of tall prairie grass. He coulda been standing in line for the casting of Dennis the Menace if you didn’t know he was a masterful guitar player and had a love for legacy country music (and, its backwoods cousin, bluegrass). His back-pocket “slingshot,” though, is a wad of picks…almost as dangerous in the right hands.
If there were still such a thing as “teen mags,” the publishing world would have a fascinating conundrum around which to maneuver:
Plaster his pleasantly grinning visage on their covers to a teen audience who couldn’t care less about his non-pop musical output? Or, exploit that same countenance to sell their slick mags, with the hope their audience might find room for him in between the records of the other fuzzy faces (a hope his record label would share)?
Peach Fuzz 👉 Chin Whiskers
William Lee Apostol was born on Saturday, October 3, 1992. Collin Raye’s “In This Life” was the #1 country song that week; Tevin Campbell had “Alone With You” at the top of the R&B chart, and Suzanne Vega was tops in Alt with her “Blood Makes Noise.”
Eventually named “Billy Strings” by his Aunt Mondi, he was born in Lansing, Michigan, and his family returned to the state after some time in Morehead, KY.
Bio-dad died of a heroin overdose when Billy was two, and his mother married Terry Barber, an accomplished amateur bluegrass musician. Billy’s uncle, Brad, knows his way around a banjo, too. Heredity being what it is, playin’ must be in Billy’s boots’n’blue genes.
While Billy was still a pre-teen, his mom and Terry became addicted to meth.
He left home at 14, living a life-on-the-edge existence working through his own struggles with drugs, until a friend’s mother took him in and helped him finish high school.
His family eventually achieved sobriety, and Billy stopped using hard drugs and drinking alcohol, as well.
“There was always music in our house, and when I was three years old I got a plastic toy guitar,” a 20-year-old Billy told The Northern Express in 2012. “There’s a video of me sitting in my high chair playing music. I guess my dad thought I had rhythm.
“When I was four, we were walking through an antique store in Ionia (Township, MI), and I saw an old guitar there,” he remembered. “I threw a fit -- I had to have it -- and my dad had hardly any money, but he paid $25 and that was my first guitar!
“I started playing rhythm for my dad (Terry) on songs like ‘Beaumont Rag,’ ‘Salt Creek’ -- fiddle tunes and straight bluegrass, when I was four or five.”
Terry and Billy were spotted and filmed, impromptu-jammin’ in a Lansing “guit-fiddle” store, Elderly Instruments, in summer 2013. Billy was 20:
I really respect my dad’s style, and I want to carry that torch.
The Greenville Journal (SC) was so taken by Strings in 2017, they called his guitar playing “absolutely dazzling, tossing off impossibly fast solos that sparkle like a mountain stream and singing in a sweet-and-sour tone that recalls Doc Watson.
“My Dad introduced me to Doc, and he’s always been my favorite,” Strings told the Journal. “But he introduced me to all the other bluegrass dudes, too: Bill Monroe [who’s in both the Country Music and Rock’n’Roll Halls of Fame], Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Larry Sparks, and Ralph Stanley with Keith Whitley.”
“It’s just what you did at my house – you woke up, put on your underwear, and grabbed your guitar,” he told The Guardian in March 2022.
In 2017, Rolling Stone magazine named Strings one of the Top Ten New Country Artists to Know.
Rite of Weigh: Billy Proudly Drives a Heavy Metal Semi into the Bluegrass Fast Lane
Despite the decidedly corn-fed, yet stellar, lineup of accomplished musicians he admires, Billy grew up, nevertheless, as a child of classic rock and then some: He is unabashedly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Widespread Panic, Phish, Grateful Dead, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath!
In fact, it was playing in metal and indie rock bands as a teen that taught him how to entertain a crowd, as he revealed to The Guardian: “We were headbanging, running into the crowd, spitting on people – blood and sweat, that was the vibe,” he laughs. “So now I’m some unholy mixture of the two.”
He regularly makes classic and hard rock standards a mainstay in his concert set: He’s been known to play the Allman Brothers, Alice in Chain’s “Nutshell,” and has covered Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” in concert! Would you believe Sabbath’s “War Pigs”?
“You need to go through some stuff to be able to beg for forgiveness on a six-string guitar.”
“I really respect my dad’s style, and I want to carry that torch,” Strings continued. “But, I think that you need to make music that’s new while respecting the traditions. Think about Sturgill Simpson:
“He’s coming out with this crazy new stuff that’s amazing, but it really sounds like older country, and that’s what’s so good about it. It still has that integrity. You can make this new bluegrass that still has the chops of Bill Monroe, and still has the drive of the bluegrass of the 1950s, and I think that’s really important.”
Billy Brings the Grammy Home
His 2019 album, Home, won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2021. Produced by Glenn Brown, Home was released on the venerable roots’n’bluegrass label, Rounder Records, founded in 1970.
Playing on the album is Billy’s touring band, featuring Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), Jarrod Walker (mandolin), and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle:
The list of artists who’d like to rub talented elbows with Billy is forever growing: He has been invited to play on stage with the likes of Dierks Bentley, another Dead founder, Bob Weir, David Grisman, Larry Keel, Sam Bush, Greensky Bluegrass, The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, and others.
Clearly a festival fave, he has performed at festivals including Merlefest, DelFest, High Sierra Music Festival, Lollapalooza, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, John Hartford Memorial Festival, Appaloosa Music Festival, and Bristol Rhythm & Roots.
At Grey Fox, he served as their very first artist-in-residence in 2017 and 2018. Strings has also appeared on popular PBS-TV shows like Austin City Limits and Bluegrass Underground.
On September 24, 2021, he released his third studio album, entitled Renewal. A month later, it reached #1 on the Billboard Emerging Artists chart.
Related: Billy’s years-long search to buy back Dad’s classic Martin (sold so the family could eat) culminates in his online pleading with the owner to hold the guitar until he could secure the money!
See Billy’s actual words with the owner (the forum site is still online after 13 years!), and see a video interview with Billy telling the story!👇
Reactor: New, Clear Fishin’
In early October 2022, Billy, an avid fisherman, took some time to issue this chuckle-worthy animated music video for his otherwise-unreleased song, “Catch & Release.”
The song, to hear WhiskeyRiff.com tell it, “is about a fishing trip he went on with his buddy, Vince Herman, in Tennessee back in 2020, and how they were smokin’ a little devil’s lettuce on the way up, when they got pulled over by a Tennessee highway patrolman.
“He smelled the weed immediately, and took it from them, and asked Strings to get out of the car to conduct a field sobriety test. However, things took a turn for the better when the highway patrolman let him go”:
“Ramble On”: Billy & Band play Led Zeppelin, live on Halloween 2022, Asheville, NC:
Shortly thereafter, he released his most recent album, Me/And/Dad, a collection of bluegrass covers:
I think we need to keep an eye (and an ear) on Mr. Strings into the 21st century. I don’t know what he plans on doing, but it’d be a shame to miss it.
Enlightening and engaging interview with Billy following a recent Austin show:
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