Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Billy Strings Delivers Bluegrass At Arena Scale

The soundscape of Broadway and Fourth Ave. in downtown Nashville on a Saturday night is usually rather bro and abrasive (abrosive?), so it was encouraging to hear the woody tones of bluegrass instruments playing the old mountain staple “Shady Grove” as I approached the Bridgestone Arena. I never got clear where exactly this live-sounding music was coming from, but it was a classy touch that made the security shuffle into the venue more like a party and less like an airport.

A giant pro hockey rink was the last place I ever expected to be arriving for a bluegrass show, but Billy Strings is signing on new users like Chat GPT, and he’s got to put us all somewhere. Ten years ago, Strings formed his first professional duo in Traverse City, MI with the older mandolinist Don Julin. Five years ago, Strings had his own four-piece band, a new indie debut album, an IBMA Momentum Award as a promising newcomer, and the attention of Rolling Stone. Now here he was playing two sold-out nights at Nashville’s biggest indoor venue, with a bonus Sunday night show at the Ryman Auditorium as an old-school exclamation point. Things have moved fast, because Billy Strings, now 30 years old, has an incendiary way with roots music that vaulted him to the top of the jamgrass scene and then on into the mainstream. It’s been a thrill to watch him thrive and rise, moreso because he plays the fire out of authentic acoustic music and hasn’t made any compromises in order to attract the throngs. Regular folks of all ages just want to be near his flatpicking energy and his virtuoso band.

“It’s really a trip to be playing here for all you folks,” Strings said a few songs in. “I’m sort of at a loss for words.” Tell me about it.

Now it would be inaccurate to say that bluegrass at arena scale is without precedent. Main stage sets at big roots festivals like Merlefest or Hardly Strictly Bluegrass have reached as many or more people as the 15,000 or so who lined the bowl in Bridgestone. In the 1970s, the New Grass Revival and the Earl Scruggs Revue toured arenas packed out with young fans who’d have been hollering for The Who and Creedence on another night. But no single star artist has leapt from the heart of bluegrass music to the mainstream like Billy Strings - ever. He’s done it with songs that trade the old mountain mythos for real-life struggles in modern America, a supple and powerful voice, and an exquisitely controlled guitar style. But more than any of that, he’s won over thousands because he and his crack band simply love to play live and surprise themselves - and us listeners - in the moment.

They kicked off with the original instrumental “Bronzeback,” which flowed seamlessly into “Must Be Seven” from the Home album and then “Meet Me At The Creek” from his debut Turmoil And Tinfoil. It made for well over 20 minutes of ferocious, uninterrupted picking that swirled and rose and fell and pulsed with that danceable jamgrass groove before they took a pause for applause.

Billy has a right hand full of diverse technique, but he can really cast a spell with his crosspicking, which is a kind of waterfall arpeggio idea carried on from his guitar heroes like Doc Watson and Clarence White. Banjo player Jerrod Walker and banjo player Billy Failing generate layers of infinite sixteenth notes but they know how to breathe and how to keep the music from getting too drony. Alex Hargreaves became a fifth member of the Billy band in the past year or two, bringing a welcome fluidity up top. He’s one of the finest of his fiddle-rich generation, and his grounding in authentic bluegrass makes his jazzy flights rich and exciting.

But let me reserve special attention and admiration for Billy’s bass player with the fabulous name Royal Masat. Amid my relief at how (pretty) good and tonal the acoustic instruments sounded in a potentially hostile acoustic environment, I kept locking in on Royal’s warm, woody upright bass, dropping his downbeats through an arsenal of subwoofers with EDM punch. Even with all the fabulous interlocking syncopated lines from the higher-pitched guys, he was the reason everybody felt like dancing. He elevated the typically plodding and simple lines of bluegrass bass duty in a way that colored the harmony and anchored the music with the weight of a battleship.

There were special friends as well. Halfway through the first set, Strings with a kind of deadpan WTF demeanor introduced Derek Trucks and his Gibson SG electric guitar. Okay, that made musical sense, but wait a minute, Trucks had his own Tedeschi Trucks Band gig going on at the same time at the Ryman Auditorium! So yeah, he snuck away during his own set break, accessing what must be a secret tunnel to the Bridgestone and threw down on two songs with his inimitable slide guitar voice. If they still gave Jammy Awards, I’d say that would qualify for Power Move Of The Year. The guest in the second set was good old Noam Pikelny, masterful banjo player with Punch Brothers, who came on to pick with the band on the Flatt & Scruggs chestnut “Polka On The Banjo” and a couple of others.

The repertoire overall included a few bluegrass standards, like Doc Watson’s awesome “Riding The Midnight Train” and Bill Monroe’s “Shenandoah Breakdown.” The Gershwin classic “Summertime” was a surprise, but that comes from Doc world too. I loved “Senõr (Tales Of Yankee Power)” by way of Tim O’Brien, who put his bluegrass stamp on the Bob Dylan deep cut years ago. The Friday night setlist was even heavier with old-time tunes, including “Tennessee Stud,” “Little Maggie,” “Doin’ My Time,” “Uncle Pen,” and “Nashville Blues,” which was delivered by Mr. Strings solo acoustic on a stool to open the show. UPDATE: Billy's Sunday night show at the Ryman, it turns out, was comprised of two long sets of traditional bluegrass songs, delivered in formal suits and hats. I may regret missing this more than any show in recent memory.

Will the scaled up success of Billy Strings be a game changer for traditional American roots music at large? It’s a conversation we’re regularly having across the scene as we ponder what’s possible and as we wrestle with the potential tradeoffs of the big time. What’s encouraging is that hardly anybody from even the old-school bluegrass universe is persnickety about Billy’s take on the music. He’s been named Entertainer of the Year by the IBMA two years in a row. Unlike the rise of Mumford and Sons or the Lumineers, there’s no desire to cringe or distance them from the “bluegrass” associations. We might argue that the ball is now in Billy’s court when it comes to shining his light on other great young acts or to actually playing live at the IBMA World of Bluegrass convention, which he’s missed for years due to his heavy touring schedule. But Billy and the boys make iconic, hard-driving, well-played, keenly-sung bluegrass music with no asterisks, and there’s no doubt that he’s acting as a gateway to the history and deep bench of today’s music, just as Alison Krauss and Jerry Garcia have done in years past. We just can’t measure it yet. The great news is that it’s music that, once discovered, can reshape a person’s music map for the rest of their lives. Years from now, many will sum up the story of how they got into the genre with William Apostol’s boyhood nickname, Billy Strings.

Billy Strings Bridgestone Arena 2.25.23
Jesse Faatz
Photo: Jesse Faatz

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org