Billy Strings and his band had played their last song. The Ryman Auditorium audience was on its feet emitting every manner of happy exultation at explosive volume. The quartet had taken a group bow and put their instruments to rest. Then emcee Eddie Stubbs, from his podium, suggested Billy Strings do one more song - a rare encore for an opening act.
I thought the timing awkward as I envisioned the musicians collecting themselves in front of the mics again. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Billy, a gangly 25-year-old with flopping hair and an exotically bright tie-die t-shirt, stepped forward alone and began singing the antique Sacred Harp song “And Am I Born To Die” in reverent, pentatonic tones. His pitch was perfect. His breath was measured, and his care for this mournful song filled the Ryman with the redemptive spirit that birthed the tabernacle in 1892.
His given name is William Apostol, and his nickname came from an enthusiastic aunt who called him Billy Strings for his precocious practicing as a little kid. Moniker notwithstanding, Billy Strings is more than just the latest hotshot bluegrass flatpicker. His recent set, opening for the Del McCoury Band as part of the prestigious Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman series, confirmed that he’s a formidable singer, songwriter and band leader as well. And this is no small feat. While the front person / guitar virtuoso is a commonplace in rock, blues, country and folk music, there’s not been a star flatpicker/band leader in bluegrass in decades. And Billy Strings isn’t alone.
The night before the Ryman show, and just a few miles away, Molly Tuttle made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry. Tuttle, also 25, is a California-raised, Nashville-based singer and songwriter who last Fall became the first woman to win, or even be nominated for, the award for International Bluegrass Music Association Guitarist of the Year. She is often mentioned in close proximity to Billy Strings, not because they have similar styles (they don’t), but because of their overall artistry and their rapid career rises in a musical field that historically has demanded long, grinding apprenticeships in the minor leagues. And because they’re both exceptional flatpickers.
Flatpicking is the insider bluegrass term for lead guitar. It’s a specialty field in a genre where fiddle, mandolin and banjo got historic head starts as standout featured instruments, partly because the acoustic guitar, the softest spoken member of the bluegrass family, needs tricky extra amplification. But in the 1960s, Doc Watson and Clarence White cleared a new path for virtuoso lead acoustic. Other flatpickers followed, including Dan Crary, Norman Blake and the kingpin, Tony Rice. During his heyday fronting the Tony Rice Unit in the 1980s and 90s, Rice combined commanding singing with innovative six-string work that bridged old-school bluegrass with forward-leaning jazz fusion. Nowadays, Rice is all but retired. Doc Watson died in 2012.
The dominant flatpicker of the past decade is 45-year-old Bryan Sutton, who grew up in Asheville, NC where Doc Watson was king. He made his name in his 20s with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder and became a session and stage all-star. He does record solo albums and front his own band from time to time, but he’s most often seen in a sideman or band role, most notably with Hot Rize. He’s won the IBMA Guitarist of the Year prize ten times. At his most recent acceptance speech, he name-checked a dozen young blazing pickers coming up in his long shadow, almost as if he was begging the IBMA membership to move on and spotlight the next generation. Two of those names were Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle.
Tuttle learned bluegrass music in a family band led by her father, a well-known Bay Area musician and educator. She received artistic mentorship from established West Coast stars, including Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Neither is a lead guitarist but both encouraged Tuttle to develop as a flatpicker despite a dearth of female role models in the style. Then she attended the Berklee College of Music before moving to Nashville and landing a record deal. Her debut 7-song EP Rise was highly praised and she’s wrapping up work on a full-length, self-written album.
Tuttle’s guitar is full of subtleties and novelties, rooted in the arpeggiated technique called cross picking, where a strong melody and harmonic decorations come flowing out of the instrument at once. There’s some Celtic influence in her modal scales, evident on the syncopated and delicious instrumental “Super Moon.” She also has adapted the old mountain style of clawhammer banjo to the guitar for a hard-driving, full-bodied sound that’s like nothing else out there. Her IBMA Guitarist of the Year win, as celebrated as it was for its glass ceiling smashing, was deserved for departing from the Tony Rice archetype. She is without a doubt the most fascinating flatpicker in the business for close listening.
Billy Strings grew up in a decaying small town in Michigan dominated by the business of private prisons. He’s described it as being defined by boredom and bad options. He’s battled addiction himself and lost friends to overdoses and prison. When he met an older mandolin player named Don Julin from Traverse City, MI, Strings got serious about their duo, which came off like a post-modern version of the 1930s Monroe Brothers, rollicking through blues, jazz and proto-bluegrass music. Eventually Strings sought a solo career, assembled a band of hotshots in Nashville and recorded his 2017 debut, self-released album. His original songs visit dark old themes in bluegrass - dislocation, longing and substance abuse - with a modern valance.
Apostol’s guitar attack is more insistent than Tuttle’s, with power riffs that reveal his youthful passion for metal and punk. His speedy 16th note tirades could come in for criticism as mere machine-gunning, but more often he renders mesmerizing loops that evolve slowly with an evident nod to hip-hop and perhaps an unaware debt to classical minimalism. He grasps the allure of dissonance, as in the off-kilter motif of “Turmoil & Tinfoil.” And he relishes the jam, leading his quartet into rounds of solos and trading that whip a crowd into a frenzy while his hair whips around a la Metallica.
Dedicated students and followers of bluegrass guitar will fairly point to the lead-singing, flatpicking careers of Josh Williams, Kenny Smith and Jim Hurst. All are IBMA award winners and brilliant musicians who can command a stage and front a band. It’s probably fair to say though that Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle are catapulting farther and faster than any guitarists in decades to the top tiers of bluegrass music, with a real shot at reaching wider audiences through festival culture and non-bluegrass venues. For many enthusiasts, Tony Rice was an onramp into bluegrass music, and it now seems a certainty that for some, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle will have the same effect.
Note: Last year about this time, WMOT's The String dedicated a full hour to new stars of bluegrass, including Strings and Tuttle. Listen here.