The colorfully tattooed, Michigan-bred Billy Strings received his stage name from his aunt, who admired his uncanny ability to master a variety of plucked instruments. The 25-year-old guitar flatpicking prodigy, born William Apostol, whose influences range from Doc Watson to Black Sabbath, is rapidly scaling the bluegrass music ladder and carving his name on the venerable tree of roots music while happily making waves wherever he goes.
Westword caught up with Strings in advance of his sold-out May 19 show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre.
Westword: Where in Michigan did you grow up?
Billy Strings: I grew up in a little town called Muir, which is just outside of Ionia, Michigan. It's a really small place. Ionia is a prison town. I think there are like seven prisons there, and most of the people who live in the town are either in the prisons or employed by them. Some of my friends have grown up to be corrections officers, and some of my other friends have grown up to be corrected by those officers. I grew up doing stuff that most kids do: messing around and getting into trouble, experimenting with stuff, skateboarding, and playing music. There was a lot of substance abuse and a lot us were bored. I hated school. I dropped out as much as I could. Eventually I realized that everyone was just getting into trouble and that I had to get the hell out of there. The Billy Strings thing started when I moved up to Traverse City, Michigan, which is kind of an artsy community. I started playing open-mic nights around there at coffee shops, art galleries and microbreweries. Pretty soon I was getting a bunch of gigs, and next thing you know I was playing all over the place.
When did you get bitten by the music bug?
Well it's always kind of been my crutch. If I get bummed out or I'm super-stoked, music is always there for me. When I was in high school, I started jamming with a band. I had grown up playing bluegrass with my dad, and then later on I wanted to play music with people who were my age, and so I joined this metal group. There was this little metal scene going on at my high school, and I joined in on it.
What kind of metal did you play?
It was kind of heavy stuff...I don't even know. It was a high school band. It was almost embarrassing. I listened to a lot of death metal at the time, but the band was more like grindcore. I learned to do a lot of tremolo picking in metal, and that's also a big bluegrass mandolin thing, where you go up and down on one string really fast.
Is there anyone in bluegrass whose playing you really respect?
I really like Bryan Sutton. He's the Zen master. He's my hero. He's like the guy with the big eyebrows in the movie Kill Bill [David Carradine]. I guess you could say he's kind of my Yoda.
You've been out to Colorado before, right?
Oh, yeah. I love Colorado. It's one of my favorite places to play. There are so many music fans for our style of music. When you have a concert, people show up in droves, and they're ready for it. They're just happy that you're there. You don't really have to prove anything to them. They're just like, "Right on. There's a band on stage. Let's rage!"
Do you have to prove it a little more in other places?
Every room you play you have to gauge the audience. If they react well to a really fast bluegrass number, maybe that's what they're into that night. Or if I sing a slow song and they get real quiet and they like listening to the lyrics and stuff, then maybe we'll play a couple more slow songs that night. But I'm always trying to put my toe in the water to see what it's feeling like.
How long have you been living in Nashville?
I've been living here for about two years now.
How do you like it?
I love it. I live in East Nashville, and there's a hell of a scene here right now. It's really happening. A lot of young singers and songwriters and pickers are living around here and collaborating and just hanging out. There's a real thriving, living, breathing organism of a music scene here now.
Is East Nashville more affordable than the rest of Music City?
Hell no! It's worse [laughs]. It's more expensive because it's popular right now. Our scene is a little more low-key, though. We're just like bluegrass folks that hang out on each other's porches and play music and stuff. It's kind of like a little folk scene.
Do you ever go to the main strip, Music Row?
No. I never go there. There's a part of Nashville that I think is kind of scary — the part that exploits music and uses young artists for every fucking penny they can get. And also they just churn out all of this terrible music. It's just sad. Music is a really special and spiritual thing, and to have it treated like that for no other reason than just to bring in a dollar is just gross. The big monster of pop country is kind of grossing me out. I don't hang with that crowd, though. I'm part of the Station Inn/underground bluegrass scene.
Are you looking forward to playing at the Mishawaka?
Oh, yeah. I love that Colorado bluegrass fans are laid-back and don't really care what our music is compared to and all of that. I'm also looking forward to playing with Tyler Grant, who is a great friend of mine and a killer guitar player. I think he's one of the best guitarists out there.
How often do you perform?
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We're on the road a lot now, more than 200 gigs a year. I'm only home about five days a month, on average. We travel in a van with a trailer behind it, and we take turns driving. We load our own gear, and I change my own strings on my guitar. I even wash my own socks.
Yes, please mention my bandmates. On banjo we've got Billy Failing. On bass is Royal Masat. On mandolin is Jarrod Walker. And, yeah, they're killer musicians. We met in Nashville. We've been playing together as a unit for about six months now. I think our recent performance from the Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee is going to be featured on PBS soon as part of their Bluegrass Underground series.
Billy Strings (and band), 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue, sold out.