Interview: Billy Strings On The Road Leading ‘Home’
We’re in a Billy Strings moment right now, and it looks like it’s going to stay that way.
You know the feeling: much-buzzed-about up-and-comer goes from “yeah, I’ve heard of him” to “whoa, he’s all over the place,” sitting-in with what feels like half the galaxy and doubling down on his own momentum, playing out like crazy, meeting fan demand for new music, and fearlessly grabbing hold of his opportunities. That’s Billy Strings in 2019.
Born William Apostol, and dubbed “Billy Strings” by an aunt who recognized his facility with several stringed instruments, Strings was exposed to bluegrass and many of its most decorated players at a young age, though also had plenty of rock and metal in his upbringing. Adept on mandolin, banjo, and most of all, guitar, Strings takes an eclectic approach to Americana, with traditional bluegrass underpinning a sound that can get viciously rocking or hauntingly psychedelic. (Spending time wondering “is this bluegrass?” misses the point.)
Strings and his ace touring band — Billy Failing, Royal Masat and Jarrod Walker — have been relentless road warriors, averaging 200 shows a year for a while now. In between, Strings has collaborated with everyone from Widespread Panic and Greensky Bluegrass to Del McCoury, Béla Fleck, Marcus King, The String Cheese Incident, and just in the last few days, Eric Krasno. He also found time to finish a new record, the accomplished Home.
Here’s a chat with Billy during a rare break from the action:
JamBase: What a wild few years you’ve had. What sticks out among the highlights?
Billy Strings: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is singing songs with Del McCoury. Playing the Ryman. Playing Red Rocks. It’s all been just unreal, man.
JamBase: Have you had a moment — or just any spot you can pinpoint from the past year or two — where it became clear you had achieved this next level of people knowing who you are and coming to see you?
BS: No, it’s been more like a slow and steady run, the whole way. I’ve been pretty much on the road for the last eight years, playing 200 gigs a year, and it still feels like I was playing to 30 people for tips in a coffeehouse, like, yesterday. I just remember being so fucking stoked about that: “Whoa, there’s 30 people here.” Every time we’ve gone out in the last few years, each time we’ve been through a town, each time we come back and there are a few more people. So it’s cool. We’re picking up a few fans here or there and we’re putting all of our energy and passion into our live show to get more of them there.
I think the best thing a band can do is play every night. If you want to see a band that sounds really tight, go see them after they’ve been playing together for two years, or if they’ve played together every night for the past six months. The more we’re on tour, the more our show gets better and we have an opportunity to kick ass a little harder.
JamBase: The band seems to have gelled nicely. What can you do now that maybe you couldn’t a few years ago?
BS: I think maybe some of the vocal stuff, with three- and four-part harmonies. But again, something happens when you play together all the time. When you play with the same dudes for a long time, I can tell what the dude standing next to me is going to do just by the look on his eyelash, you know? You learn body language, you remember what worked about things you tried before, you get into each other’s heads.
JamBase: Do you give a lot of direction as a bandleader?
BS: No. I think it’s more like we all talk about stuff and decide what will be best. I can suggest things, and there are things I sort of take control of, but when I come up with something I run it by the band. I really care about their opinion and how it’s going to work within the band.
JamBase: Has it always been like that in your band?
BS: No, I mean, it was all me before, and now it feels like more of a band. When I think of the word “band” I don’t necessarily think of musicians, I think more of brothers, or a family. This is more of a wolf pack now.
JamBase: And you’re all-in on this lineup?
BS: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been fortunate to play music with a lot of amazing musicians along the way, and I’ve learned something from everybody I’ve played with, especially these guys. We went through a few band members before this lineup locked in, and this is the best it’s ever been.
JamBase: You seem like a very natural collaborator – that it’s easy for you to find musical common ground with other musicians and just work together.
BS: I grew up going to bluegrass festivals, and I’d play with a bunch of people I didn’t really know. You get together with people and it’s really fun to play and check out what they do and how they do it. You don’t know them, but because you know bluegrass, you can sit down and have a good time. You speak the same language. So I’ve just kind of kept that ability to have that conversation, and I can go sit down and play with Widespread Panic, or Bela Fleck, or Yonder [Mountain String Band], or David Grisman. There are so many different languages, and it doesn’t throw me off when someone has an accent or just approaches it differently — we can still find a way to play together. It’s fun to get into that challenge. In bluegrass, you play maybe a little 10-second solo and then pass it on, and it’s structured and traditional. But you learn how to play. And eventually when you can get really heavily into the open freedom of music and improvisation, and just jam, that changes your whole world. It changed my whole world.
JamBase: Bluegrass is often thought of as a precision music, but you heard the freedom in it early on.
BS: I absolutely love it. [In bluegrass] there’s kind of a specific recipe, but in some songs or some areas of certain songs, it’s all about listening to the other people playing so maybe you can wander into some uncharted territory and exchange musical ideas in real-time. I love that. It’s really fun to be vulnerable and not know what’s going to happen.
JamBase: But did you always want to pursue that aspect of it?
BS: I haven’t always. When I was younger, I was more of a bluegrass purist and was coming up as a traditional player. But now I fully embrace it. I love playing music that way. Someone like Bela Fleck for instance, I’ve jammed with him, and we can play something super composed and then he can go play off the cuff. That’s what I like to do. You have to know traditional bluegrass and know how to play it before you can go tampering with it. And you need the foundation to stand out. Whatever music it is you’re trying to play, you can take that and use it as a springboard for your own thing. No matter how crazy or psychedelic the shit we do is, what’s at the bottom of it is traditional bluegrass and what I cut my teeth on it. You have to learn to talk — say your first words — before you can talk shit, you know? [laughs]
Bela Fleck & Bill Strings Captured by Music City Maven
JamBase: We’ve mentioned a few of your recent, high-profile collaborations with other artists and bands. Do you prepare a lot for your sit-ins?
BS: Oh man, there’s usually about no preparation. Most of the times I sit-in with people, I don’t even know what the fuck I’m going to play. Leftover Salmon and people like that, they’ll say, yeah, come sit-in on these songs, and when I get up there, Vince Herman will have changed it up —- the Salmon guys they write a setlist and then don’t play anything on it [laughs]! Sometimes there’s a little more structure. Widespread Panic — I ran through the songs with them before we played them. But I usually don’t do that with Salmon or Greensky, or especially not with Del or the bluegrass bands — we could play those songs in our sleep and they expect you to be able to be that way if you’re going to play with them. Generally, I like to just get in there. If you rehearse it, it might actually take something away — you might actually play the better version of it during the rehearsal. I’m weird about that kind of stuff. I’d almost rather not go through it at all.
JamBase: In early September, shortly after your show with Widespread at the Ryman, you played “All Time Low” in Georgia. How’d you pick that one?
BS: It was the first song I ever heard them play. It was at the first Panic show I ever went to. I was just high enough, and that song really fucking hit me — it really did something to me, man. It was just so cool, they jumped right into the first verse, JB’s vocals were so epic. That song has stuck with me.
All Time Low Captured by T Shaw’s Progressive Bluegrass
JamBase: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about Home. Especially for fans that have been following you for a while, what do you want people to know about this record?
BS: We had a blast making it, and I put my personal, honest, best stuff in it — songs collected over the past few years or so, things that happened in my life. I don’t know, I’m ready to get it out there. It’s a therapeutic thing to put these personal things into songs and just set them out to be opened up, not hide it, not suppress anything. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
JamBase: Does songwriting come easy to you?
BS: Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I can get to a point where I don’t write for weeks and months, and then I get these little spurts of creativity. Other times, I just feel bad about myself for not doing much, but I don’t write for a long time.
JamBase: Do you generally know when you have a good song?
BS: I usually don’t know when it has its full potential, but I can feel like the song is right: the verses are right, the lyrics are right, the instrumental is good. It’s when the song speaks for itself, which is weird because it’s like trying to write without writing, but I try to get out of the way and just let it flow. I know when a song is not good, or just fucking garbage, and that’s when you keep working on it and think about what does this song need to make it grow and be right.
JamBase: We’ve talked about some of your collaborations and I’m sure there are others you get asked about on a regular basis. How about you and Marcus King, will we hear more from your King & Strings work?
BS: Yeah, I’d love that. I’d also love to play some electric music with a drummer — play some rock ’n’ roll, man. I’d love to play some more stuff with Bela Fleck, that duo show was so much fun. And then you know Bryan Sutton and I have talked about doing some Doc Watson-flavored stuff, hopefully with T. Michael Coleman, Doc’s longtime bass player. We’ve been shooting that idea around for a while. And you know, I’d really like to play some shows with my dad.
JamBase: You’ve got shows through the end of 2019 and already into 2020 — are we accurate in thinking it’ll be another huge year of playing and touring for you?
BS: Yeah man, I’m not slowing down for nothing. I’m here, you guys are going to have to live with me! [laughs]