Strings Theory: How The Hottest Hand In Jamgrass Mastered Pandemic Touring
Jesse Faatz – Jamgrass Wunderkind
Billy Strings performs during the final gig of his six-show livestreamed residency at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., Feb. 24, 2021.
In normal times, the audience before Billy Strings at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre in St. Augustine, Fla., on March 21, 2021, would’ve been disastrous.
Pockets of fans totaling about 1,600 were strewn throughout the amphitheater, which typically accommodates around 4,800.
But these aren’t normal times, and the red-hot 28-year-old jamgrass wunderkind was all smiles. The show, which capped a three-night, socially distanced, sold-out run at the venue, was a triumph. For the first time since the pandemic began, Strings played to fans in stands – not in their cars or on their couches. And he’d sold 4,847 tickets to the tune of $215,180, the third-highest grossing box office report of his young career, per Pollstar data.
“When we walked out for the first time, it was an enormous applause that we haven’t felt in so long,” Strings tells Pollstar from his tour bus, en route to New Orleans for two livestreamed gigs from Tipitina’s. “I’m not gonna lie, I got a little teary-eyed.”
Strings surely wasn’t alone in his mistiness. For many in the Florida crowd, the show also marked a return to a sort of normalcy. That they were seeing Strings specifically – just days removed from winning Best Bluegrass Album at the Grammys, no less – only heightened the moment’s import. With his rootsy bluegrass revivalism and heady psychedelic jams, Strings has already cultivated a passionate and wide-ranging audience.
“Hippies and wooks and old people, young people, kids, clean cut, long hair, clean, dirty, square, round, everything,” he says, recounting St. Augustine’s faces. “There was this elderly couple sitting up front, and when I was playing just a good old bluegrass song, I realized they were really enjoying that.”
Strings’ manager Bill Orner picks up the story.
“Front row, arm around each other, sitting in their seats, minding their own business, just taking it in,” he says. “When he hit the four-on-the-floor bluegrass stuff, they were into it.”
“Not that they didn’t enjoy the big, crazy, psychedelic stuff,” Strings adds. “But, you know, everybody’s here for a little of everything.”
If there’s a signature trait for Billy’s fans – goats, as they call themselves in a punny riff on the term for the species’ males – it’s that open-minded eclecticism.
“There was almost every walk of life at that show,” Orner says. “Everybody’s welcome. Everybody’s there for the same reason, just to spread the joy.”
In a fraught year, Strings and those around him parlayed that fervor into the rare pandemic success story, blazing trails in livestreaming, drive-in touring and socially distanced podded shows while remaining true to their core values of authenticity and fan engagement.
“Billy’s team really was able take a challenge and do some reverse jujitsu on it – taking a negative and turning it into a positive,” says promoter and Dayglo Ventures founder Peter Shapiro, who has booked Strings at Brooklyn Bowl locations in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Nashville, as well as at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. “During the COVID period, they actually continued their growth. It didn’t pause at all.”
Jesse Faatz – St. Billy
Strings performs at St. Augustine Amphitheatre in St. Augustine, Fla., on March 19, 2021. The show was his first with fans in the stands since the start of the pandemic.
\Born William Apostol, Strings’ musical journey began in the Grand Rapids suburb of Ionia, Mich. Some of his earliest memories are of the ad hoc bluegrass jams his father, Terry Barber, hosted at their home and, by age 4, Strings had a guitar of his own to pick along with Barber and the musicians he invited over.
“Music was our way of life,” Strings told Pollstar in February 2020, when he was featured as a Hotstar. “By the time I was in kindergarten, I had it set in my head that I wanted to play bluegrass.”
Barber also introduced Strings to harder, headier fare like Black Sabbath, leading an adolescent Strings, now in possession of an electric guitar, to immerse himself in Ionia’s metal scene.
“I listened to so much different stuff,” he says. “I listened to hip-hop, I listened to death metal, I listened to bluegrass. It’s all over the place.”
Despite some musical detours, bluegrass was in Strings’ bones, and he soon returned to the genre and his acoustic axe. As he reached adulthood, he found himself further north on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in Traverse City, where he began gigging with respected Michigan mandolin payer Don Julin. Footage of the pair reached agent Pat May of Crossover Touring – home to legends like David Grisman and Del McCoury – who signed Strings after being stunned by what he called “alien-level ability.”
Soon, Strings and Julin were opening for the likes of Grisman and McCoury, and turning heads in the process. Among them was Orner, who joined Strings as manager in 2015. Plum support spots followed for Strings, now touring independent of Julin, as he warmed stages for jammy bluegrass acts including Greensky Bluegrass and The Infamous Stringdusters.
Strings’ career was moving at a breakneck pace. In June 2019, he sold out Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and by year’s end he’d notched sell-out, multi-night runs at Denver’s Ogden Theatre and Detroit’s Majestic Theatre. That fall, he released his second studio album, Home, which won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass album in March. Strings sums up the year bluntly: “2019 was hardcore, man.”
As 2020 dawned – with two sold-out shows at the 1,950-capacity Capitol Theatre – little seemed beyond Strings’ reach. Tickets were largely gone for the spring 2020 tour, which included three nights at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colo., and two at New Orleans’ Civic Theatre, and he was booked at festivals from Bonnaroo to Peach. Of course, few predictions for 2020 held up.
Jesse Faatz – Playing In The Band
Strings plays at St. Augustine Amphitheatre with his longtime crew (from L): mandolinist Jarrod Walker, bassist Royal Masat and banjo player Billy Failing.
Bill Orner lives and breathes Billy Strings, and when the coronavirus forced America into lockdown, he couldn’t sit still for long. After taking a day off – “I was so uncomfortable,” he says – Orner began plotting the next move with Strings and May.
“We just kept going back and forth, back and forth,” he says. “We recognized that we had a little steam, a little bit of momentum, and we didn’t want that to stop.”
Like most, they didn’t anticipate the pandemic’s length or severity.
“Those days were intense, but it wasn’t an intensity of fear,” May says. “It was an intensity of, like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna fix this, right? This will be fixed up, no problem.’”
An avid fisherman, Strings at first spent a fair amount of time with his reel.
“But, after a while, it’s like, ‘Well, we got to do something,’ you know?” he recalls. “I got probably like 20 people on the team or something that I employ. It’s crazy, that kind of pressure. I’m not just worried about how I’m gonna pay my bills. I’m worried about everybody else, too.”
On April 4, less than a month into the pandemic, Strings made his bedroom livestreaming debut. But he had grander ambitions. Come July, he embarked on the “Streaming Strings Tour,” comprised of nine audience-less livestreaming gigs spread across five Nashville venues. The paid shows gave Strings the opportunity to play rooms like Exit/In and City Winery that he’d previously skipped over because of his rapid rise.
“Billy is eternally trying to give back,” May says. “We were like, ‘These small venues need a lot of help right now. What can we do to help them?’”
Though Strings admits it’s “weird playing for nobody” in empty rooms, the tour proved his livestreaming mettle nonetheless, selling 22,053 virtual tickets for a total gross of $220,309. And his team used the gigs to dip their toes into staging responsible pandemic-era events.
“We were meticulous about the safety of how we were doing it and limiting how many people were in the venue,” May says. “Even at that time, there were opportunities to have a limited number of tickets sold. But we didn’t do that on purpose, because we didn’t even want to go there.”
Weeks later, Strings and his team adapted again, staging the seven-show “Meet Me At The Drive-In Tour” at three venues across Pennsylvania and Illinois.
“Those were really fun, kind of like a big tailgate party where everybody’s spread out in a big parking lot,” Strings says.
“People were grateful that shows were happening, period, and we got a great reception,” says May, adding that because jam fans are “born to tailgate … that environment worked well for us.”
The gigs were successful, selling 12,420 tickets and grossing $646,767, but May still doubts drive-ins will remain post-pandemic.
“I think there’s a better experience, if you need to social distance and that’s why you’re doing it,” he says.
Effectively, the “Streaming Strings” and “Meet Me At The Drive-In” tours, along with one-off events like an audience-less September gig livestreamed from Red Rocks, were crucial test runs for the touring strategy Strings would implement in 2021. With COVID cases surging, he and his team called off a handful of December events and looked ahead to the new year.
Jesse Faatz – Vugrass
Strings and company perform at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., on February 24, during the sixth and final night of “The Déjà Vu Experiment,” a livestreamed residency from the venue.
Few runs are more significant in Grateful Dead lore than the band’s February 1971 stand at the Capitol Theatre. Across six shows, the band debuted seven songs that became live staples: “Bertha,” “Wharf Rat,” “Bird Song,” “Deal,” “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Loser” and “Playing In The Band.”
The shows also hosted dream telepathy experiments by Dr. Stanley Krippner, who showed images to fans and instructed them to “send” them to researchers in a Brooklyn “dream laboratory” about 50 miles away.
Even before the pandemic, Orner had discussed the idea that Strings – who regularly covers Dead tunes – might honor the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s Capitol run with the venue’s owner, Peter Shapiro. Strings, Orner and Shapiro were determined to stage the gigs in some form, even if physical audiences were out of the question.
The result was “The Déjà Vu Experiment,” a six-night livestreamed residency that corresponded with the Dead’s 1971 dates. Bookended by free shows on Twitch’s Relix Channel, the middle four gigs were broadcast as paid livestreams on fans.live.
Shapiro, known for his savvy modernizations of aspects of the concerts of yesteryear – and for orchestrating the Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” concerts – worked with Orner to create a virtual version of Krippner’s experiments, instructing fans to transmit images they were presented with to remote nightly guests that included Dead & Company’s Oteil Burbridge and Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools. Though initially “weirded out” by the ESP component, Strings’ confusion soon gave way to enthusiasm: “This is super heady,” he remembers thinking after reading up on Krippner.
In January, Strings and the longtime bandmates who round out his quartet – mandolinist Jarrod Walker, bassist Royal Masat and banjo player Billy Failing – logged substantial studio time, and in the spirit of the Dead, premiered 14 new songs during their gigs at the Cap. (“If we don’t play this shit now, we’re gonna forget it,” says Strings, recalling planning the residency’s 12 sets, which featured no song repeats and more than a dozen Dead covers.)
“He’s got a great je ne sais quoi,” Shapiro says. “What’s really important is just that the music’s always changing and different each show. That’s part of the spirit of the whole Dead and jam world, but he’s got the bluegrass, too. He really is bringing different worlds together. The medicine that he’s creating from different chemical ingredients – our Dead, our bluegrass – it’s good medicine. It works. He’s creating something that’s really powerful.”
All told, the residency sold 20,000 pay-per-view tickets and hit 24,000 concurrent viewers at one point during its free finale.
“Not only did the interest not wane after five nights, but it exploded,” Orner says. “We had a lot of people watching, and it was just amazing.”
May, a Phish devotee, compares the run’s qualities of artistry and endurance to the iconic jam band’s vaunted all-night New Year’s set at Big Cypress that rang in the new millennium.
“It’s a great feeling when we see someone get the momentum that Billy has,” Shapiro says. “Once you get going like he is, it usually keeps going, and it doesn’t fade. We’re gonna be doing shows with Billy forever.”
Jesse Faatz – Pod Position
Strings and banjo player Billy Failing prep for the last of three shows at St. Augustine Amphitheatre, which welcomed fans with seating pods and other COVID-era measures.
Throughout the pandemic, Strings’ touring – livestreams at venues, drive-ins and now podded shows – has been governed by the health and safety plans of venues and promoters.
“We’re not booking based on strategy of touring right now,” May says. “We’re based on who are partners that will help us create this vision with the highest level of safety.”
St. Augustine Amphitheatre, he says, “was a match made in heaven. Their goals and values were completely aligned with ours.”
The venue, a government-owned facility under the purview of Florida’s St. Johns County, worked with Event Safety Alliance to develop that organization’s reopening guidelines, and made its podded debut in January with two shows by JJ Grey & Mofro, implementing a COVID plan that had been in the works for eight months, according to general manager Gabe Pellicer.
“We had to completely transform the way that our ingress and egress [works], food and beverage, concessions, merchandise, everything,” Pellicer tells Pollstar. “We replaced every seat in the amphitheater with a seat that can be locked closed so we were able to create pods. Without that, I don’t see us being able to do this.”
Before COVID, St. Augustine’s staff had courted Strings, and the venue’s successful podded shows caught his team’s attention.
“The first conversation that we had was kind of unusual,” Pellicer says. “Usually, you start talking about money immediately. We talked about 20 minutes just about our core values. They were just asking us who we are, what we’re about, why we do this and a little bit about who we are as people. I don’t think we even mentioned numbers. It was just like, ‘OK, we’re good.’”
Tellingly, Pellicer says the Strings team, which has long prized affordability and access for fans, was insistent that the venue keep ticket prices low, or at least as low as possible for the inherently costly format of a podded show.
At the shows, fans overwhelmingly complied with safety guidelines – although, Orner explains, some expanded past their pods out of excitement and had to be reined in by venue security. But the rigorous protocols enabled thousands to experience live music once again.
“People were very excited to see live music, very fucking excited,” Strings says. “You can’t take live music from people because it’s super necessary for a lot of people to cope with the bullshit.”
Audience members weren’t the only ones subjected to stringent regulations in order for the shows to take place.
“We’ve been fucking poked and prodded so many times,” says Strings, rattling off the quarantine, testing and regulation protocols each member of his team complies with before and during pandemic-era tours. “If any one of us catches COVID and brings it back on the bus, we’re all fucked and the whole tour is ruined. If somebody gets sick and we can’t do it? Man, that was a lot of hard work and a lot of bullshit for nothing.”
So far, the safety protocols have worked and Strings’ spring tour marches on. After the St. Augustine shows, Strings played two paid livestreams from an empty Tipitina’s and another at ACL Live at The Moody Theater in Austin, Texas, then remained in the Lone Star State capital for an outdoor podded gig.
He’s finishing his spring tour with a bang. Strings rolled into Columbia, South Carolina, for four socially distanced shows, April 1-4, at the new Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center – which characterizes its distanced enclosures as “coves,” not “pods” – and moved some 13,000 tickets. The jaunt wraps with three more podded gigs in the parking lot of Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., April 9-11.
Bold and safe as Strings’ in-person, distanced shows may be, his team continues to unflinchingly examine them from operational and health perspectives.
“It’s a new world out there,” Orner says. “Nothing is as it was. We’re happy and lucky to be doing these things. But we’re constantly looking at how to better improve everything.”
Jesse Faatz – On The Road Again
Billy Strings and his band chill in the bus ahead of the last night of his six-night run of livestreamed gigs at The Capitol Theatre.
Strings spent the years prior to the pandemic ascending to the highest echelons of the jam and bluegrass worlds. Now, he seems poised for mainstream success.
“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,” says Rounder Records president John Strohm, who signed Strings to the revered and eclectic label shortly after he assumed control in 2017.
Strohm and Orner agree that studio recordings play a more critical role in Strings’ overall offering than they do for other jam artists, and Strings is intent on building on the success of the Grammy-winning Home. Since moving to Nashville, Strings says he’s delved into co-writing with collaborators around town, and he’s also encouraged his bandmates to help pen tunes so they can receive a cut of his royalties.
Many of the songs Strings debuted at the Cap in February will appear on his next LP, which is near completion and was helmed by musician and Father John Misty producer Jonathan Wilson.
“Wait ‘til you hear the record, is all I can say,” Orner says. “The guys have a pretty great record in the can.”
“With what they’ve got cooking and shows returning, this year and next year are going to be a real watershed for them,” Strohm predicts.
Meanwhile, Strings continues to venture beyond the boundaries of bluegrass. Earlier this year, he released “The Great Divide” with arena-level country artist Luke Combs, a collaboration he notes “ruffled a lot of feathers” among bluegrass purists. Even more irksome to some: the photo Strings posted to Instagram with Post Malone last November.
“I got concerned messages that I was hanging out with Post Malone,” Strings says. “I hung with Posty that night, and we sat there and played Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. We sat there and listened to Randy Travis and Colter Wall, Tyler Childers, Sturgill. All he listens to is outlaw country, and he’s a badass guitar player and singer. He knows every word to [Williams’] “Jambalaya (On The Bayou),” we sat there and sang it!”
Perhaps related, perhaps not, Strings enticingly hints that he has “a hip-hop kind of artist on a song that’s gonna be coming out soon.”
For now, though, Strings is just thankful to be back on the road, blowing minds with his singular musical style and virtuosic chops.
“I’m fucking excited to be out there playing music,” he says. “This is what I love. It’s what I was made to do. It’s my entire life, it’s my entire identity. What’s been missing in my life, for sure, is playing music onstage for people.”