Since launching in 1970, Rounder Records has been home to seminal bluegrass artists including J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice and Alison Krauss. It remains formidable: Of the last 12 winners of the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Albums, seven have been Rounder releases, including Billy Strings’ Home, which received the award in March. For more about Rounder and its hottest artist, Pollstar connected with label head John Strohm.
POLLSTAR: Tell me about your discovering Billy Strings and signing him in 2018.
JOHN STROHM: I started running Rounder at the end of 2017. Rounder has a strong history in bluegrass and acoustic music. I’d heard of Billy Strings before that, but when I started meeting people who were really deep in this genre of music it was the one name that everybody kept dropping: “Oh, Billy Strings, Billy Strings, you gotta know about Billy Strings.” Rounder had tried to sign him before and it did not come together. I very quickly realized that this is the artist that I needed to focus on and try to sign. It was a real effort right away, as a matter of priority, to try to sign what I quickly realized was the clear crossover artist working in these genres.
Do you remember the first time you saw him play?
The first time I saw him live was 2018 South By Southwest. It was probably a stunningly small crowd for people who go to see Billy now – probably about 300 people there. The first tune he played was 20 minutes. The top of the tune was straight bluegrass, and eventually they came back to another refrain of the tune itself, but in between it was exploring new worlds and an incredibly broad palette. That’s what’s exciting about him and that’s what keeps people coming back to the shows. No show is ever the same as any other show. That’s very much in the jam tradition.
How significant is the fluency with which Billy incorporates genres outside bluegrass into his music?
One of the things that’s most incredible about him is his ability to genre hop, and that’s why he has such a high ceiling for how big he can become. The basic format is bluegrass and it’s acoustic music – though he plays with effects – but his genre explorations are very free and he doesn’t have a sense of boundaries. He’s willing to go anywhere that his sonic exploration takes him. He has a career that has no obvious ceiling – it’s not clear how big he can get. He’s growing every week. His career has grown significantly during the pandemic, where most careers have basically flatlined.
What made Home special?
When I started talking to Billy and his manager, I didn’t realize what a great songwriter he was. I knew what a great player he was. I knew what a great improviser he was. But I didn’t realize until we had the final master to Home, and I listened to it obsessively for a matter of weeks, that he’s a world-class songwriter. He can write with the best of them, and it holds up as an album. The case with a lot of these jam artists is that their shows are an experience, their followings are very much like Billy’s, but you’re not gonna have that rich of an experience putting on the record. It’s just kind of a less interesting version of what they do live. But with Billy, he’s a true artist in the studio – that’s as much of an exploration for him and a discipline as playing live.
Billy has such a wide-ranging following. Why do you think he appeals to many?
For his most rabid fans, it’s a connection to the music and to the songs, to the experience of being at his shows. But I think one of the reasons why he’s getting so popular so fast is because he has a visceral appeal, like a rock star. He’s very, very natural on stage, he’s incredibly cool looking. He’s a star in that respect. I think that’s what’s gonna drive him forward. It’s natural. It’s not contrived. It’s authentic. It’s really him.
How special has it been for you to see Billy get back on the road?
Billy and his team really just dove in, in any way they could. They were always safe about it, they never put themselves or others at risk, but they were always creatively looking for ways to stay out there and to move things forward and keep reaching fans, keep reaching new listeners. It’s very obvious that between the time that Home came out, which was a couple months before the pandemic, and now, [his following has] grown significantly, without him being conventionally out there on the road – while many, many artists have just kind of sat back and waited. It’s inspired us as a label to innovate and to find ways to keep things moving forward for other projects as well, because there was just never any fear or hesitancy on their part, in terms of how they were continuing to pursue things.