Words by: Mike Mannon
A few years ago, I took my family to a local free outdoor show with a few friends. You know the type: warm summer Sunday night, picnic blanket, gazebo stage, snuck-in cooler, decent regional band, lots of covers.
Not typically my thing.
This one was a little different though—the township had somehow booked the killer bluegrass/ Americana band Della Mae, who I’d recently written a piece on, and I wanted my daughter to see up close how much ass those women kick.
As everybody was setting up the low-back chairs, I hear my daughter sigh “we lost dad again.”
As is my tendency, when I go to a show, as the rest of my crew is talking and catching up, I’m drifting toward the stage, watching how the drummer is setting up his high-hats.
What had gotten me this time was a handsome kid and older guy opening the show. The kid on guitar was dressed in a sharp, almost old-time style suit, and he was absolutely blistering the first song of the night. In fact, his intensity, his glow, comically contrasted the sleepy scene he’d found himself in. Everybody around me is talking about t-ball, and this kid is laying down runs that should be melting their faces.
By the end of their 45-minute set, I couldn’t jump over lawn chairs fast enough to get back to Don Julin and Billy Strings’ van and introduce myself.
It took me a few years to catch up with Billy Strings again, and a lot has happened since.
In late 2014, Julin and Strings put out a collection of barn-burning old-time and bluegrass classics, Fiddle Tune X. And in touring it, Strings quickly gained a reputation for the ferocity of his playing. After several years of logging 200+ gigs, Strings left Julin and in 2016 moved to Nashville. His first EP, released that same year, didn’t garner much attention, but it did include three tunes penned by Strings, born William Apostol, that showed some intriguing songwriting promise.
A glimpse of that promise is on display on Stings’ first full-length LP, Turmoil & Tinfoil, which came out late last year. It’s an eclectic mix of old-time, jamgrass, and psychedelia, and shows off Strings’ big, rangy voice. Most interesting though is some subtly powerful lyric writing that belies his age. The tunes draw heavily on both his idyllic bluegrass childhood and also, if you look closely, the perils that lie on all sides for a generation of small-town millennial kids.
We sat down in at the Fillmore in Philadelphia, before the closing weekend of this winter’s run Strings’-opened, packed Greensky Bluegrass shows. Outside the door, the Greensky guys were practicing the National Anthem they would break out over the weekend shows. And outside that door, was a crowd filtering into the Fillmore, where I later heard more than a few versions of a shouted question among friends: “Have you seen Billy Strings yet?”
JAMBASE: Let’s go back to your childhood and talk just a little about your dad’s influence on you as a musician.
BILLY STRINGS: My dad is a hell of a player. Great flatpicker, great singer. And he kind of specializes in Doc Watson type of playing, which I guess is odd. There’s not a lot of people who are Doc Watson aficionados out there playing.
JAMBASE: Well most of the time when I talk to a really good player, their dad or mom was like a three-chord guitar player, and then the kid becomes the really good musician. But not you, huh? He was a real player?
BS: Yeah, and it’s more than just the picking. He can sing it, he can play it. Like the truest of the original thing. Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt and Scruggs, Larry Sparks, The Stanley Brothers. All that early bluegrass is what I heard growing up.
I got a chance to jam with David Grisman, and my dad, and Del McCoury — all in one night. It was a trip for me and for my dad. And Dawg said, “Man, your dad sounds like Ralph [Carter].”
And he does. He’s got this real spiritual thing. It’s deep in his heart. When he sings a song he tries to embody the spirit of the song. He doesn’t do it for money, or to be on stage or whatever, he does it for the song. He’ll do it in his bedroom by himself — make himself cry. It’s a real thing, really honest and true. Heavy, at times.
So I grew up around that. And my parents are really, really cool people. We always had parties and people hanging out. It always smelled great in my house, and people would be over, and I just would be a little kid hanging out, and there’d be people in the kitchen playing along and singing, bobbing their heads, and my dad’s there leading the party. And I saw that and thought, “look at all these people smiling.” My dad’s singing his ass off. And I thought, “man, I want to do that.”
It was so natural. If my dad would have been a firefighter, maybe I would’ve wanted to be on a big, red truck right now.
JAMBASE: Did he start you on something littler, mando, or …?
BS: No, it was a guitar, a little plastic thing though, that took batteries, and right around the sound hole there was this little speaker with horizontal ridges, and my dad gave me a pick, I was about three I guess, still in my high chair, you know, and I could take that pick and [makes picking sound] scratch those ridges with a pick while my dad and his buddies were playing. Just try and hang on to the rhythm [laughs]. I had my right hand going before I could ride a bike.
And I’ll never forget when I was four, we’re in Ionia [Michigan], where I grew up, and we’re walking through this antique store, and the light is just shining down on this guitar, this small guitar . . .
JAMBASE: So you’ve got an image of it still?
BS: Oh, I can’t forget that.
It was one of those old kind of Sears Silvertone guitars or something. The name on the headstock said “Norma.” I’ve never seen another one, but I saw that guitar and I just needed it. And I went for it. We didn’t really have the money for it, but I threw a fit in that antique store. My dad had $30, and the woman said, “If he needs it that bad, you can have it for $30.”
And I’m still very grateful he did that.
So from then, it went to teaching me G, C, D, then he gave me a capo, now I know I-IV-V, those three chords, I can play half the bluegrass songs out there! [Laughs]
And so I became my dad’s little sidekick. He was playing the fancy runs on “Beaumont Rag,” and I was playing rhythm for him.
JAMBASE: After playing with your dad early on, that kind of idyllic time has to end obviously, and you had to find your own way through that stuff most of us drift into when we get into our teenage years. It sounds like you had to pull yourself out of some low points . . .
You know, I never felt like I fell too deep off the end — I had a lot of friends that did. I grew up in a real small town, and those towns in America are ridden with substance abuse, and depression, and poverty, and people that are just trapped. Not everybody who plays Monopoly wins.
My close circle, by the time I graduated high school, and I barely did, I couldn’t count the friends I lost to suicide, drug overdose, or prison on both hands, you know? You’re just a kid, and you’re like “holy shit.”
So yeah, there was a lot of stuff going on in Ionia at that time. Meth was a big thing, and that’s where I think the “tinfoil” comes from. A lot of people I knew got wrapped up in that, went to prison, ruined their lives. I saw it up close and personal. It’s been a long time since I been around anything like that, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s all black-and-white in my memory. It doesn’t have any color. It’s all . . . overcast.
But that’s what helped me break out. I was like “I don’t want to do that, I want to do good.” So I started focusing on my guitar. Fuck that. I’ve seen people I love go down. I don’t want to do that.
JAMBASE: It sounds like you also had people around you to help you keep focused too.
BS: Yeah, but it was the music itself, you know? During those hard times, I had some close friends to help me through it, but the music was my close friend.
When I was a senior in high school, I thought my world was over. Everything was the biggest deal, of course. The teenage mind is so fragile, in ways. I’m just 25 now, but I have much more of a grip on things than I did then.
JAMBASE: It’s amazing isn’t it, the difference when you come out of that?
BS: It’s like, “OK everything’s not that big of a deal!” [Laughs] But it’s what got me here, too. I don’t regret a mile of that. All that stuff, seeing darkness, helped me run towards the light, and that’s what I’m still doing now. I want to stay focused. Music’s always been my safe little lifeboat, you know?
Check this out: when I was a little kid, 5, 6, 7, 8, everything was amazing. I was fishing with my dad, we had a swimming pool, it was all great. And then we started to struggle a little bit. And then by the time I was 13, it was awful. Rock bottom, almost.
JAMBASE: Which is a really precarious time in any kid’s life.
BS: And at the same time, I thought I knew everything too. I was dropping out of school, started messing around with drugs. I just never thought I could amount to anything. It wasn’t good. I was not good at school. I wanted to be home playing my guitar. Why am I sitting her learning about Christopher Columbus or glucose or whatever? This does not concern me. I’m going through some shit here. My friends are going through some shit here.
JAMBASE: And a lot of times adults who see a kid disengage like that, they just press down, you know, instead of trying to open the kid up.
BS: And I don’t deal with that kind of authority well at all. Wag your finger at me, and I walk the other way. But I did have some teachers that kind of understood what was going on with the substance abuse, and some friends who helped me out. I don’t regret a mile of it, man.
JAMBASE: So how’s Nashville? Do you feel like you get caught too much in the bubble of it, with so many musicians being around?
BS: I love it. I love it. I loved Traverse City, where I lived before. I miss it so much. But Nashville, man. I’ve got all my favorite pickers all around me. I live with Molly Tuttle, who’s one of the best guitar players ever. And there’s just people to play with everywhere.
JAMBASE: And I know Molly’s on the record. Your dad’s on it too, right? How was that?
BS: Oh man, it was such a joy. For him and for me. He’s on the last track [“These Memories of You”]. He’s never done much work in the studio, but I wrote this song and we got to do it together. I remember looking over at him with the headphones on and he’s just loving it.
JAMBASE: I wanted to ask you about what I think is a breakout for you as a songwriter: “While I’m Waiting Here.” A jailhouse tune with a twist in the last verse, where’d that come from?
BS: I freaked myself out on that one. I wrote the first couple of verses, and then the last verse came later, and I was really proud of that one. I don’t know where it came from. But I have a close personal friend who just got out of prison recently, a childhood friend, and he got locked up and shouldn’t have been in there that long. And I might have been thinking of him a little bit when I was starting to write it. He didn’t do anything crazy like what’s in the song, of course!
But maybe I was thinking about him sitting in there, wondering if the love of his life was going to be waiting for him when he got out. In the story, he’s more worried about his relationship than his sentence.
JAMBASE: And that’s what makes it a compelling song. That hint of obsession we all have.
BS: Yeah, so in denial. He won’t even admit to himself what happened. And I was happy with it because when I wrote that last verse and you find out what really happened, it gives those first verses more weight.
JAMBASE: There’s a great, simple little line in one of those first verses, where I said “this guy is a songwriter”: “My picket fence has turned to razor wire.” Feeling that moment, hearing that line, it made me think of another powerfully subtle songwriter who’s out there doing soundcheck right now. Do you talk to Paul Hoffman [of Greensky Bluegrass] much about songwriting?
BS: Paul is probably my favorite songwriter, at least that I can talk to. You know, I can’t talk to Townes Van Zandt. I love so many of Paul’s songs — their ability to rope you in — so much. And that’s the thing you were talking about earlier: being simple but yet complex under the surface. He gives you one little line, and you’re just going, “What’s he going to say next?”
I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to do that, it’s something you just have to work on. I was proud of “While Waiting” when I finished it, but songwriting is not easy, man.
And I wanted on the record to have something for everyone too, you know. I’ve got “Meet Me at the Creek” that’s this raging jamgrass, “All of Tomorrow,” which is nice bluegrass twin fiddles. If someone hates that first one, they might love that next one. I wanted each track to have a little bit of a different vibe.
JAMBASE: And then you went way out with the spoken word on “Spinning.” So what the hell? [Laughs]
BS: Yeah, it was a psychedelic experience that I had. It was very profound for my life and it changed my life. It spelled some shit out for me that I couldn’t really believe, and I’m still trying to believe, and I tell people about it all the time that I’m close to. But I wanted to put it on the album because I needed people to hear it. Maybe I needed to hear it.
JAMBASE: I like to talk to musicians in winter when it’s: play, loadout, drive, set up, soundcheck, eat, play. You get a sense better of who they are than in festival season. You’re almost at the end of this run, are you going to take some time off or keep going hard into festivals?
BS: I want to keep my foot on the gas. I’ve got a fire going, and I want to keep stoking it. Not that I’m afraid it’s going to go out. This is the part where I’m paying my dues. I expect to be doing it for the rest of my life. I’m not in it for the money, I’m not in it for my health.
Every night I get to go onstage and try to paint a better picture than I did last night, and that’s amazing. We not only are lucky enough to have people support our music, and the talent to go out and do it, the gift of being able to go out on stage and do that every night. To better myself, you know? To give it everything I have to see if I can do my best. And sometimes you fall short, but you’ve got tomorrow night. So tonight when I go out, I’m going to fucking give it may all.
Something Col. Bruce [Hampton] said: “Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.” And I love that so much because I am very serious about what I do. But when something happens, it’s just a show. I’m trying to learn how to be better about that.
I never knew I was going to be a bandleader. I had to learn how to be a bandleader. Now I have five or six people who are employed by me. I have a great manager, Bill Orner, and other people who help me out with that.
But I went from being nobody to somebody who had some responsibility and a good life. So I’m just grateful for it. The fans. This tour. It’s unreal. It’s just like who the hell are we fooling? How did we get here? How did we deserve this?