One of the greatest things that can happen to someone who writes for a country music website is tripping across something new that is so exciting it instantly makes you want to learn everything about it. That very thing happened to me back on June 28th of this year.
I attended a show at The Ryman Auditorium where The Del McCoury Band was headlining. The house was packed. When it comes to legendary bluegrass bands, The Del McCoury Band is right at the top of the heap and rightfully so. I was excited. I wasn’t there to review it, I was there just to watch it and enjoy it with my family. Unlike many shows, I had zero intentions of ever picking up my phone that night. No photos, no video, no live tweeting, nothing. Just sitting back and being in the moment.
There was a slight complication to my plan. Billy Strings was the opener. I was completely unfamiliar with Billy Strings. It took about two songs before I lost all composure and had to follow this band on every form of social media and I had to make a lame attempt at one crummy phone photo. To say the very least, I was impressed. The musicianship in this four-piece band, consisting of guitarist Billy Strings, banjo player, Billy Failing, mandolin player, Jarrod Walker and upright bassist, Royal Masat was jaw dropping. What sealed my decision to go a step further and request an interview was when I heard Billy Strings was only 25 years old. What?! I thought he looked rather young, but this was not only incredibly young to have this much talent, but it was also amazing news for bluegrass fans. There were a lot of years left for this guy to continue to make more music and “improve”. Improve? I know everyone can continue to improve and grow, but by the end of the show, my head was spinning thinking about what “improvement” will look like when it comes to Billy Strings and his abilities on the guitar.
Photo courtesy Patti McClintic
A few stepping stones down the industry path and I found myself chatting with Billy Strings on the phone as he drove through the mountains of Colorado from Ridgway to Denver. Somewhere “that looked like something out of ‘The Planet of the Apes’, but it’s beautiful. I wish you could see it.” The phone calls did begin to drop toward the end of our conversation, but we managed to make it through an entire interview despite those pesky mountains, and to say he’s an interesting guy would be selling him short. He’s one of the easiest people I’ve ever talked to, because he’s rather two-dimensional. I do not mean that in a disrespectful way at all. In fact, quite the opposite.
On one side, he’s obviously a prodigy. His talent speaks for itself. He knows music and he’s highly intelligent. On the other side, he’s a simple person. You ask him a question and he doesn’t give you philosophic answers that require you to dissect what he said and rearrange it so you “might” understand it. He’s a regular guy. He’s quite different from many musicians, in that he loves what he does and he excels at it, but he also seems to love being “just Billy”. At least that’s the feeling I got from speaking with him. I felt as if I talked to both of these people on the phone. I hope by the end of this piece, you’ll have “spoken” to both of them as well. I’ll do my best to bring out both of them for you. They are both very interesting, very genuine and very likable people.
Born and raised in Michigan, Billy Strings (born William Apostol) moved to Nashville a few years ago and his band formed the way many in Music City do. “We ran around in the same circles and hung around and picked in Nashville and that’s how we all met.”
As I said, my first encounter with this band was at The Ryman, and it was also the band’s debut playing at that hallowed hall. I asked Strings to describe that feeling. “It was just an honor to play on that stage, to play some bluegrass music. Bill Monroe and all those guys I looked up to my whole life used to play on that stage. Elvis, Hank Williams and everybody, and to share it with The Del McCoury Band was really special, you know, and my Dad was there, and you can imagine how proud my parents are and how good that makes a boy feel to have his parents there and play at The Ryman for the first time.”
Photo courtesy of Shelly Swanger Photography.
The show at The Ryman was the first stop on a very packed tour schedule. While the guys call Nashville home, they are now on a 30+ date tour and I asked Strings if he ever gets to meet with fans while on the road. “Yeah, I certainly do. Especially if we play shows that are smaller and a more intimate setting, I definitely will hang out around the merch table and take photos and sign albums if they want and try to chat with some people and hear about their day and kind of get to know some of those folks that are out there supporting us.”
We have so many followers from the UK, so I definitely had to ask about tour dates across the pond. No, Billy Strings has never been out of the country, much less to the UK, but they would love to go there, they just need to find out how to do it. They do have a Mexico date coming up which they are very excited about, so if and when the UK becomes a possibility, they would be very happy to go over.
The record they are currently promoting on their tour is their first full length album, Turmoil and Tinfoil. I asked how they came up with that concept (there is a song on the album bearing that name). Strings told me it was based on real life, but the title itself was kind of straight out of his head. “I really don’t know. I came up with it one day. I was just thinkin’ about dark stuff. I used to live in a tiny, little small town just like I’m driving through right now and there’s a lot of substance abuse. A lot of people just trying to figure out what the Hell to do and just getting’ lost while tryin’.” I complimented him on the record and how well put together it is and how I’d been listening to it non-stop. “Thank you, our engineer and co-producer, Glenn Brown, is brilliant.” Here you can see, Strings is a person that is quick to give credit where he feels it is due, and he didn’t hesitate one second before dropping that name.
Without a doubt Billy Strings is one of the most dynamic bluegrass bands I have ever come across, but when you dig around enough, you’ll find almost everyone has been down a road or two before they find the one they’re meant to be on. Strings was no different. My online research found him in a metal band as a teenager, but I wasn’t taking the internet’s word. I was going straight to the source and the source had this to say, “I’m glad you think that way, I think that way too, but oh yeah, that’s true.” When I questioned how he transitioned from metal to bluegrass or whether they kind of ran side by side, he responded by saying, “My Dad taught me about bluegrass when I was really young. He played bluegrass and he listened to a lot of Doc Watson and played a lot of Doc Watson’s music and Bill Monroe, so growing up around my Dad I wanted to be a guitar player just like him. So, that’s how I learned how to play music. Later on, I got an electric guitar and eventually I wanted to play music with people that were my age.”
He continued, “In middle school, it was a heavy metal scene back then and at first, I didn’t really care for the music because I had just listened to bluegrass my whole life, but then you acquire a taste after a while, for whatever it is, whether it’s food or sometimes if you just give something a chance, it’ll eventually spark something in you that you can dig, and I eventually really got turned on to metal and I really enjoyed it, so I played in some metal bands and that’s how I cut my teeth for performing on stage.”
Performing on stage you can absolutely see glimpses of those metal band beginnings. While the genre may be different, there’s a fastness and a furiousness to Strings’s guitar playing and his movements that suggest he’s been around a metal show stage a few times. To put it bluntly, he is not boring. One has to wonder if his fingers suffer because they certainly do get put through the ringer during a show. “Every once in a while I do have to ice them after a gig. The skin and my fingertips are okay, but after a hard night of playing, my hands themselves are real fatigued. It’s kind of like an athletic thing for me. I have to really stretch and take care of myself.”
One of my very favorite parts of this interview was next. I asked Strings if he could collaborate with anyone who would it be with. His answer was great. “For some reason, I always say ‘Eddie Vedder’ whenever I’m asked this, but now I’m thinking maybe it would be more like a guitar player, like maybe Jack Pearson or Derek Trucks or somebody.” Not only am I fan of these guitarists but I enjoy when someone has been asked a question before and has routinely answered it a certain way and for whatever reason, has come up with something different when asked again.
On March 24, 2018, Billy Strings was honored to be the very first band to play in the caverns in Pelham, Tennessee for the PBS series Bluegrass Underground. The show was taped that day and tickets for that taping sold out quickly. Strings was unsure when the show will be aired or made available for the general public, but he thought perhaps September. When asked how that experience was he said, “It sold well, everybody showed up and we had a good time and we had a lot of fun.” The best we can say right now is keep watching your local PBS TV schedules for Bluegrass Underground: The Caverns.
I asked Strings, “In your estimation, what is the best bluegrass band ever?” He took about one second and replied, “Del McCoury Band”, but quickly backed up and said, “Well, if you said, best EVER, Bill Monroe.” Bill Monroe is the Father of Bluegrass Music. He came up with the name of the genre because he was a native of Kentucky, the Blue Grass State. I’ll let Strings tell you the rest. “At times, The Bluegrass Boys was just the best sounding thing still I’ve ever heard. I had this day where I was hanging around the house and I listened to music for hours. I listened to this crazy trip of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and I listened to all this really heavy rock and I left for a little while and when I came back my YouTube had somehow gone back to Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys at Austin City Limits and I just walked in my room, and after watching all those videos of all those rock and roll legends, Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys playin’ bluegrass breakdown rocked harder than any of that shit. The technical proficiency that’s going on with those guys and their instruments, Kenny Baker on the fiddle and Bill Monroe, any number of the great musicians that have been in his band over the years. It’s just really neat to dive into. You can study Bill Monroe for years and years and still never scratch the surface.”
Video courtesy of YouTube and Sherry Baker
When the guys in the Billy Strings band aren’t playing music, what else are they doing? Do you really want to know? Are they skydiving? Rocky mountain climbing? Not exactly. They’re sleeping. Yes folks, this is rock and roll. Or rather, bluegrass. In any event, life on the road isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it’s exhausting. There isn’t much time for sleep, so yes, they sleep. Says Strings, “When we don’t play music, we try to recuperate really. At least that’s what I do. It seems like we’re on the road so much that whenever we’re not on the road, I’m trying to relax and hopefully I can get some writing done soon. We’re on a 30-day tour, 33 days we were out, and we’ve got a couple weeks left and maybe after this tour I can get a little bit of time blocked off so I can hopefully get more writing done for the next album.”
As for the next album and what’s coming next, Strings continues, “I’ve played a lot of bluegrass and now with the band getting some momentum, we just want to make original music now and we did that with Turmoil and Tinfoil and I wrote that batch of tunes and I just want to write my next batch of tunes.” So, for all of the current Billy Strings fans and all of the fans we hope this interview generates, you can see the band is eager to create new music as soon as they can.
So, as we were talking and the band was driving through those mountains, Strings was describing some strange tall pillars on the Colorado landscape, “but it’s so beautiful”. I remarked that if those pillars were constructed by otherworldly beings and suddenly the Billy Strings band turned up missing, we might have to assume an alien abduction had occurred. It generated a laugh and to set the record straight, I don’t believe in that stuff, even though I do have a bit of a problem with a place called Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, California. For my touring musician friends, I highly recommend it. That’s another story for another blog entirely. I’ll work on that, but it did fit in nicely for this one small paragraph.
Photo courtesy Patti McClintic
We talked shop. We talked bluegrass. We talked the tour, the album and even confirmed the metal band internet story to be true. It was time to move on to some fun things.
The band now lives in Nashville, even though all four guys come from all over. I asked Strings how he likes Nashville. “I love Nashville SO much”, he said, much the way you speak when talking about your favorite dessert. I then asked, “What’s your favorite place to eat in Nashville?” Strings didn’t hesitate, “Mitchell Deli.” That was the first time anyone has told me that specific location. He then went on, “Yeah, that’s a good place. The Asian Flank Steak sandwich is the best.” I told him he was now on record as saying so, and he replied, “Well, that’s good, hopefully I can get a free sandwich.” I told him that was the least they could do because they would probably end up with more business because of his endorsement.
Photo courtesy of Mitchell Delicatessen of Nashvillle (we assume menu and pricing are always subject to change)
We had a good time with the next round of questions. In any band, there are, of course, parts that each musician must play, but bands are like families too. Whether it’s an actual band member or one of its support staff, somebody has to be the “Mom”, and hold them all together or else things might get out of hand. You get the idea. I asked who played these various roles in the Billy Strings band. I have listed these roles, according to Billy Strings, in his words:
The “Mom”: My wonderful love and girlfriend/tour manager, Ally Dale (I originally asked who played the role of the “Dad” and was the one to fix things and lay down the law, but we decided she was more like a “Mom”). She’s the “Whipcracker”.
The “Handyman”: Andy Lyle. He fixes stuff when it breaks. “Handy Andy” or handy brother that knows how to fix stuff. He’s our Front of the House Engineer.
The “Teenager”: (I described this as the one who is always complaining, always late and eating all the junk food): That’s Royal (upright bassist).
The “Kid”: (The “Are we there yet?” person) Jarrod (mandolin player) (Strings was definitely laughing when he said Jarrod’s name).
The “Grandpappy”: He likes to be called “Pops” more than “Dad”, but Bill Orner, our manager, he’s like the “Grandpappy”. He’s like keepin’ us all together. He’s like higher up the tree making sure us kids are all fine down here.
I explained that I felt better knowing there was someone watching out for them out there, and Strings, once again, giving credit where credit was due, mentioned Orner, Ally, their agent, Pat May and Crossover Touring all holding their band family together. There may have been more on that list, but we ran into a snag and the call dropped. Rocky Mountains, you know how it is. They don’t mix well with cell phones, but you get the idea. This guy understands that although the band is named after him, it takes a lot more than himself to keep the machine moving. He seemed happy for the opportunity (strange as that opportunity may have been) to point that out.
When I listen back to my audio of this interview, I have a series of failed call back attempts and finally Strings reached me. Briefly. We were able to connect just long enough to finish our interview.
One of our Think Country followers had a question about bluegrass music that I squeezed in. How does Strings feel bluegrass music has changed over the last 20 years and what, if anything, are artists doing to draw young people to the genre? He answered, “It’s definitely changed. It’s grown bigger and wider.” I asked if he thought it was a dying art. His reply? “Hell no.” It’s getting cooler to listen to bluegrass by the year in his opinion. I would have to suggest turning young people on to bluegrass by introducing them to it via Billy Strings. If this band isn’t some of the coolest bluegrass around, I don’t know what is. They can certainly start there and work their way back to the legends.
Video courtesy of YouTube and Music City Roots
I managed to get in the magic question we try to ask everyone we interview. When Billy Strings Thinks Country, what does he think? “Hank Williams”. Anyone that wants to argue with that can take it up with a country music purist. Just don’t ask me to play referee. That’s going to be a bloody mess.
Billy Strings can be found:
*Featured image courtesy of Big Hassle.