Hotstar: Billy Strings Goes Beyond Bluegrass
Emily Butler – Strings Theory
With next-level technical skill, sprawling sets and a vast and varied repertoire, Billy Strings has quickly amassed a following.
The temperature in Port Chester, N.Y., hovered around 20 degrees on the night of Jan. 17, when Billy Strings was slated to perform the first of two sold-out shows at the Capitol Theatre.
But the 27-year-old bluegrass phenom wasn’t holed up in the green room – he was in front of the venue, serving hot chocolate to shivering fans waiting for the show.
The scene was emblematic. In a few short years, the prodigiously talented Michigan musician born William Apostol has amassed a fervent national following willing to brave the elements for his heady bluegrass blowouts. Strings, meanwhile, goes above and beyond to reward their devotion.
“These fans, they come from everywhere,” he says. “They get on airplanes and come across the country to see us play. That is beautiful and amazing to me, and there’s an amazing community. These people work hard at their jobs, and they’re choosing to spend their money to travel and come see us play? What an honor.”
Strings’ dedicated listeners have quickly propelled him from plum spots opening for jammy bluegrass acts including Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and Railroad Earth to his own theater headlining gigs. In June 2019, he sold out Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, moving 2,362 tickets and grossing $72,041, according to Pollstar Boxoffice data, and tickets are long gone for the bulk of his announced 2020 touring, including three nights at the 1,150-capacity Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colo., and two nights at New Orleans’ 1,200-capacity Civic Theatre.
Strings’ musical journey began in Ionia, Mich., a small suburb about 45 minutes east of Grand Rapids.
“Music was our way of life,” says Strings, recalling the ad hoc bluegrass jams his father, Terry Barber, would host in the trailer park where they lived. “My dad would have people over and everybody would stand around and have a beer and just be smiling and laughing and enjoying the hell out of the songs that he was playing. I just noticed how awesome that was. Like, ‘Man, my dad brings a lot of joy to these folks. I want to do that when I grow up.’ By the time I was in kindergarten, I had it set in my head that I wanted to play bluegrass.”
Barber had already bought the young Strings a toy guitar – “I used to play [along] with him in my high chair,” Strings wistfully remembers – and, at age 4, he got the budding musician a real one. For an aspiring and naturally gifted musician like Strings, the circumstances were ideal: regular jam sessions with seasoned vets where he’d play along, finding his way by ear. And the education extended beyond bluegrass.
“He showed me Black Sabbath when I was like 7 years old, and it scared the shit out of me,” Strings says. “He called me from across the house and was like, ‘Get in here, I need to show you something!’ I walked in his room and he’s like, ‘Sit down right there.’ I’m like, ‘Geez, am I in trouble?’ He’s like, ‘This is Black Sabbath. You need to know this.’”
Soon, Strings had acquired an electric guitar and was expanding his musical horizons, “sniffing around” his middle school for like-minded youngsters.
“It’s not that I was ashamed of playing bluegrass or anything, but it was my dad’s music,” he says. “I had this fantasy about playing music with people who were my age.”
That urge led him to Ionia’s metal scene, and the adolescent Strings immersed himself. At the same time, his home life was deteriorating: His parents’ substance abuse struggles forced him to move out and sleep on friends’ couches; he rarely played with his dad anymore, and his acoustic guitar was “collecting dust.”
But Strings’ trajectory changed when, as a license-less 15-year-old, he decided to take his mom’s 1972 Chevelle for a joyride, with “a bottle of vodka riding shotgun.” As Strings zoomed down a country road, corn fields on either side, he noticed a tape hanging out of the tape deck, and his curiosity was piqued. What was his mom listening to?
Strings popped in the tape and “Rank Stranger,” by seminal mid-century bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, began to play.
“I started slowing down,” he says. “I took my foot off the gas. I pulled over, and I just listened to that song.”
For Strings, the moment illuminated where his heart was – in bluegrass – and prompted him to reconnect with both his acoustic guitar and Barber, picking his dad’s brain about how to play bluegrass tunes like Bill Monroe’s “Salt Creek.”
Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association – New Americana
Strings performs at AmericanaFest 2019 on September 11, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee.
As Strings edged into adulthood, he found himself further north on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, working at a Traverse City hotel by day and gigging around town by night, including with popular Michigan mandolin player Don Julin. Word began to spread about the duo, and a clip eventually reached agent Pat May of Crossover Touring, home to legendary players like David Grisman and Del McCoury.
“This is alien-level ability here,” May recalls thinking. “It just didn’t look real.”
Strings was on the verge of signing with another agent, but May convinced him otherwise. In no time, Strings and Julin were opening for Crossover acts like Grisman and McCoury, and in 2015, they played DelFest in Cumberland, Md.
The gig was “the first big stage that they got on in front of people in that Americana-bluegrass-jamgrass scene, and it turned a lot of heads,” May says. “It kind of just took off from there.”
May had enlisted Bill Orner to help with Strings’ branding, but soon Orner was managing the emerging artist – and Strings had big plans.
“Billy’s musical appetite was exploding and Don couldn’t keep up with Billy,” May says. “Billy just wanted to expand his musical palette far beyond what he was just playing at the time. He wanted to experiment with a larger band.”
Strings’ work ethic proved decisive immediately.
“Everything that normal teenagers get into the music business for are lost on him,” Orner says. “He’s not about the party. He’s not about fame and fortune. He’s about, ‘How great can I play today? How far can I push my music today? The fans that are watching, how far can I make their jaws drop?’”
Strings’ out-of-this-world chops have made him a live draw, as have his marathon shows, which typically follow the two-set jam band mold and channel his eclectic musical interests. Since November alone, he’s supplemented his own material with covers of dozens of artists, from bluegrass icons (Grisman, Monroe, Doc Watson) to jam heroes (The Grateful Dead, Phish, The String Cheese Incident) to rock staples (The Rolling Stones, The Beatles) to revered bluesmen (B.B. King, Blind Willie Johnson) to a grab bag of other touchstones (Cher, Pearl Jam, Jimmy Cliff).
“Some of the stuff we do transcends the boundaries of bluegrass, which in turn offers it up to listeners who maybe necessarily wouldn’t come to a bluegrass concert,” Strings says. “I’ve been inspired by Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and people like that, but I’m not a clone of that or anything. … I’ll always have my roots deep in the bluegrass world, but I think music is a boundary-less thing.”
“That’s a big part of why the fan base is growing as quickly as it is,” Orner says. “You never know what you’re going to get. You may get five traditional bluegrass tunes in a row, and then you may get a Pearl Jam tune and then you’ll get one of his eight-minute- or 14-minute-long songs. … There’s longevity in this type of non-genre-specific artist.”
In 2020, Strings has doubled, tripled or even quadrupled his ticket counts in most markets, while also booking festivals from Bonnaroo to Peach and a four-night mini-tour of tiny Michigan rooms with Barber as Family Strings. Even so, demand has outpaced supply. Seeing fans outside his gigs who can’t get in has frustrated Strings. So have the ticket scalpers who have exploited the hot market, flipping tickets for several times face value.
To address the latter problem, Strings and his team partnered in May 2019 with Cash Or Trade, a reselling platform that facilitates a face-value secondary ticketing market.
“I just want everybody to be able to come to a show,” Strings says. “It breaks my heart when I see somebody standing outside with their finger in the air. I just want to go grab my guitar and play for that person.
“If it was up to me, I swear, I would just stay in one spot and start a commune and play 24 hours a day for anybody who wants to come,” he continues. “But that’s kind of unrealistic.”
For now, Strings is offering up the next best things: a brimming itinerary and plenty of hot chocolate.