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Billy Strings On The String: A Guitar Star Who’s Always On The Road Releases ‘Home’

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Ed Rode
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The string band and jamgrass movement, a slow-burning, three-decade roots music revolution, has hallmarks of an exclusive society. Longstanding leaders of the scene, including Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band and the Infamous Stringdusters, tend to headline over and over. Newcomers can generally expect a long period of knocking on the door with uncertain prospects of hitting the biggest stages. Unless somebody comes along like Billy Strings. 

The script would make a screenwriter roll her eyes. A kid, born William Apostol in backwater Michigan, starts playing the guitar as a toddler and gets his nickname at age six from a family member who couldn’t get over how much the kid practiced. He reveres his dad, whose passion is bluegrass guitar. As he negotiates challenging teenage years in a troubled part of the country, he found some security and direction playing in an old time string duo with older mandolinist Don Julin. 

Strings and Julin toured and recorded and got people talking. Have you heard Billy Strings? It was a question put to me by a bluegrass insider about four years ago. At that point, when he was just over 20 years old, several things stood out. Billy was fast and muscular, able to rip with the auto-fire ballistics of heavy metal (one of his many musical loves). Yet he knew the old time repertoire and had a feel for the energetic swing that made the Monroe Brothers such a force in the pre-dawn days of bluegrass. These few years later, his guitar is more nuanced and patient. He has his own quartet, and the band, playing a different city nearly every night,  is fluid and free to take any tune in any direction. They know how to stay in the bluegrass pocket but also how to stir a crowd to a dancing frenzy. Like Sam Bush, Strings has won the admiration of the bluegrass community from trad to rad. He was in September announced as winner of the IBMA Awards for New Artist and Guitar Player of the Year.

“For a long time I was very strict in my bluegrass ways. I was what I would call a grass-hole,”  Billy says in this AmericanaFest interview for The String. “I was a stickler. This is how bluegrass is and this is how it isn’t. But somewhere along the way I completely flipped to the opposite side of the spectrum, where I started to almost get annoyed with that small box I was crammed into as a bluegrass musician, and I longed to play Jimi Hendrix and classic rock and blues and experimental and psychedelic music. I really got into the Grateful Dead, so something changed somewhere where all of a sudden I liked to take it as far out as I can get it.”

On his second album Home, his debut for the venerable Rounder Records, it’s far out indeed, yet always under control. Strings shows a complete set of chops, including writing, arranging and storytelling. The album travels well from front to back, with its seven-minute title track positioned halfway through like heart of a suite. It is bluegrass, psychedelic rock, and then some. 

In the show-leading conversation above, Billy Strings talks about writing and arranging Home and the wild run that’s put him near the top of the bluegrass/newgrass mountain.

 

 

 

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