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A conversation with Billy Strings
A Low Down and Dirty exclusive interview with the hottest guitarist in the country.
I interviewed Billy Strings a few months back for Guitar World. The story is in the current issue… but it’s so small… too small for his talent and for the great conversation I had with him. So I’m presenting it to you here, just lightly edited for clarity and brevity
I had not seen Billy live yet when we spoke. I caught him a bit later at The Capitol Theatre and I thought he was fantastic. it was one of the most exciting guitar performances I remember seeing in many years. His approach to bluegrass and the stellar interaction of his band actually remind a bit of the original Allman Brothers Band - not in sound, of course, but in conception. Starting with a deep respect for and commitment to a folk music form, taking it far out in the solos and landing right back on the riff, right back in the traditional form. A groundbreaking approach that doesn’t sound radical because it comes easily and naturally and is not part of an intellectual exercise, but just that rare combination of a totally dedicated free spirit and a highly skilled, disciplined and excellent musician. “Tight but loose,” as I wrote in Big in China. I look forward to interviewing Billy again, now that I’ve seen him. It will be a lot different.
Billy is a 29-year-old from Western Michigan. His real name is Billy Apostol. Enjoy our conversation.
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ALAN PAUL: What was your first attraction to bluegrass and acoustic guitar?
BILLY STRINGS: My dad would play around the house by himself. When my parents had friends over, a lot of times they friends came with instruments. Even before I can remember - there used to be videotapes of it, which is how I know - my dad and his friends were sitting around having a few beers, just hanging out and playing and I was sitting in my high chair watching. That was very much kind of the lifestyle that was my household growing up; some good weed, some beers and a lot of bluegrass music. Later on all that party stuff kind of got too intense, but when I was young, it was perfect. Everybody was in perfect vibration. It was a few beers and some music, not crazy hardcore drugs or anything. It was a beautiful childhood.
We lived in a trailer park and it was tough but the music was awesome. My dad would play and everybody would stand around and bob their heads and smile and sing along. I just noticed early on that my dad really brought joy to everyone. I was three or four years old when we moved over to the Muir and Ionia area. I had a little plastic toy guitar, all neon colors with buttons on the fretboard. And where the sound hole was was a little speaker and it had actual horizontal ridges in the plastic with slots cutting it so that the sound could come through. My dad gave me a pick, and I would actually just kind of just scratch on that guitar. It never even had batteries in it. I just played it like a little fake guitar. That got my right hand going when I was three years old.
When did that transition to a real guitar?
My dad got me my first actual guitar when I was four. We found it in an antique store and I'll never forget that ‘cause I turned this corner and we're looking at all this bullshit like a Liberty Bell replica. We turned around this corner and I just saw this guitar hanging on the wall and the light was shining right down, like it was shining from the heavens on it. I threw a fit for that thing, ‘cause my dad was like, "Man, I ain't got the money. Next time.” I was like, "I need it!" [laughs] I freaking threw myself on the floor and the old lady at the antique store is like, "Well, how much you got? He really wants it." And my dad's like, "I got 30 bucks to my name, kid." And she's like, "I'll take it." And my dad spent his last $30 on that guitar for me. After that, he took me home and he taught me G, C and D, and he gave me a capo. Once I learned those three chords, I could play a couple bluegrass songs.
I already had the rhythm; the right hand thing was already kind of going on. I just had to learn where to put my fingers with my left hand and once I knew that, I was off to the races. Especially with bluegrass, being a lot of it is three chords, I-IV-V. If you have a capo, you can play G, C and D and play just about any bluegrass song in any key. It took me a couple years and by the time I was six or seven years old, I could play some tunes. I could hang on rhythm, and that was my deal. I never played any solos, that was all my dad. I was strictly his little rhythm player. I think that gave me a really good foundation because I learned music by ear. But listening so much for the other stuff… that's how I can tell what to do and where to go. I was really listening and paying attention to solos, how to build and play them, for a long time before I even attempted one.
You played some shows with Billy Kreutzmann last summer. It was the first time I had seen you play electric and I think it was the first time a lot of people had. Was that atypical for you or had you been playing a lot of electric guitar all along?
I never play electric guitar, man! Just occasionally if a band asks me to sit in. I recently sat in with Widespread Panic and got my ass kicked all around that stage. And sometimes if we do like a gig where there's a drummer, I’ll use that as an excuse to say, "Oh man, I'm gonna bring my Strat and play Johnny B. Goode." It's fun because it's just so different. It's not that I don't know how to play electric guitar, because I have played it in the past when I was a teenager in metal bands and before that I played a lot of more classic rock style stuff just with my brother. We were heavy into Hendrix and Zeppelin and the Beatles. But I pretty much abandoned the electric guitar when I was about 17 and went fully back into flatpicking. And it's been sort of an extracurricular activity ever since where bluegrass and flatpicking is definitely my thing and I'm most comfortable with an acoustic guitar in my hands.
But it's fun to try, and it takes a second to adapt and to try to figure out. Like all of a sudden I have sustain! I can hold a note and let it ring for as long as I want, whereas on the acoustic guitar, I gotta play six notes or tremolo or something to make sustain. But with an electric, you can sing on the guitar. I would say that I was definitely faking it, but I always am! I mean, music is music to me. It doesn't matter what it is, I'm always flying by the seat of my pants. So it doesn't even matter if I'm playing with my guys who I play with every single night or someone I just met.
You said you're faking it, but that feeling of having to be on your toes and being slightly out of your comfort zone can also produce some great stuff because you put your brain into a different spot.
Yeah, totally. I love playing with cats from different genres and being pushed in that way. I can't go jump into a jazz jam where they're playing “Autumn Leaves” and swing tunes, but it's really fun to sit around and mess around with those tunes. Then all of a sudden you realize that you're throwing those licks in there in the middle of a blazing fast solo: "Oh my gosh, I just played the ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ lick in a bluegrass song."
When you do stuff like that or play those gigs on electric guitar, do you find that you come back to your acoustic playing differently?
Yeah, and vice versa. When I hop on the electric guitar, I play more acoustic guitar stuff, which I think comes across to more intensely guitar-focused listeners. I think some people can tell that I'm a little uncomfortable on the electric guitar, while others think, "Oh, he's crushing it." I kind of side with the people saying, "Man, he's not an electric guitar player." Cause really I'm really not and I was scared shitless up there until the music got us carried away. Playing with Billy is like tossing out every single preconceived notion about what you've ever thought music was supposed to feel, sound, and be like. There's just absolutely no boundaries when it comes to playing with him. It completely throws all of that "fundamental" stuff that you need to make music work out the window and turns it into just having fun. It's like playing basketball, where you have to be totally alert and ready to catch the ball at any time.
That's a great description.
When we rehearsed with Billy, we were running tunes like “Terrapin Station” and he's like, "Ah, let's just save it for the stage." I'm like, "Dude, we don't know this song." He's like, "It'll be great, don't worry about it." And he's totally right. Once we got up there, we were just feeling each other and vibing out and everybody's got such big ears. I love playing like that. It's not like something where you have it well rehearsed and you could do it in your sleep. It's the exact opposite of that. It is the vulnerability. It is me playing electric guitar and not being 100 percent sure, but who cares? We're just playing music and having fun. It's not the end of the world if something's a little shaky around the edges. I certainly don't give a fuck, neither did Billy. [laughs] I don't think a bunch of them folks at Red Rocks did either. [laughs]
Right. People loved it.
That shit was so fun, dude. I'll never forget that in my entire life.
The first time you played with him was at his birthday thing down in Hawaii, right?
Yeah, which was also just an amazing experience.
Did the experience you’re describing have any impact on your own music, or the new album?
We were already done recording, but it certainly does now. I learned something every night playing with someone like that. Every chance you get to walk on stage is another chance for me to learn something good, bad or in the middle. Just the whole freedom and music thing, it just seems like an amoeba, man, when you're playing with Billy. It's like a squishy jellyfish that can mold into any freaking thing. And he would do that. He'd be playing some blues thing and all of a sudden he puts some little four measures bossa nova groove in and then goes back to blues. How are you gonna play that beat over that thing? "Well, because I'm fucking Bill Kreutzmann!" He's just back there mixing it up. I was amazed at how the music would just change directions at the drop of a hat and the whole band would follow. The music really does play the band; that's what happened.
But one thing I wanna tell you about this kind of moment that I had on stage with Billy where I saw a true artist in the depths of a struggle on stage and it was a pretty lonesome but beautiful experience: We were on stage at Red Rocks and I think the altitude was fucking with Billy a little bit. We were midway through the second set and we were cranking on some fast tunes and I seen him kind of get a little tired, and he reached back and he put his little oxygen mask on. I was on mushrooms at the time and all of a sudden, I got really nervous, like, "Is Billy okay?"
Meanwhile, we're in the middle of a fucking intense jam. We're going for it. And I look back at him, he looks kind of pale, like he's not doing too good. And I'm thinking, "Oh, fuck." I got a little nervous. I got a bunch of anxiety and shit, just hoping, "God, I hope Billy's all right and the altitude's not fucking him too bad." And I look back at him and he's just continuing to drum with his eyes closed. Whether he's feeling like shit from the altitude or not, he's just paying attention to the music. He would fucking croak before he stopped playing those skins.
Is that inspiring or…?
It was beautiful and sad at the same time. It's like an artist will do anything until his death to play his music. It really did something to me. I'll never forget that because no matter what I'm going through, no matter how hard it is, no matter how terrible I feel, just keep playing. Music has saved my life, man. It's been a coping mechanism, a survival strategy. I don't know what the hell I would be doing if I wasn't doing this. I was kind of stuck in a shitty situation earlier on in life where there was a lot of drugs and shit, and I didn't know how I was gonna find my way out. I knew I was never gonna go to college and shit like that cause I was a failure all through school. And so I just was the guitar and, man, it fucking saved me. So until the end, I'm just gonna play. It’s so beautiful but almost sad in a way, and it's brilliant too. It's hard to explain the sort of emotion that I feel about the guitar.
It's such a blessing to have that. No matter what else is going on in your life, you have the opportunity to get to the other side of it by playing music.
Yeah, to just kind of reach into the divine.
Right. Do you care to talk at all about that period in your life when you felt like you were stuck in such a bad spot? Was it your drug use, or your father’s, or someone else’s?
Yeah, my folks and my friends. It was just everywhere. Everywhere I turned, peer pressure. I grew up in a town that was kind of suffering from an epidemic, man. And even right now, there's a lot of speed and smack and alcoholism. There's just nothing to do there. It's just boredom that causes this. By the time I was eight years old, I was trying smoking weed and shit. And by the time I was 16, I had smoked meth and crack and done heroin and all that shit. I just always played guitar as an outlet, but even when I was in metal bands in high school, we had to pay to play. Dude, we lost money. but we had to play. It was like, "This is never gonna be a viable career, so obviously I'm just gonna end up a junkie like the rest of my friends.” I didn't really see a way out, until I did. I don't know how it happened, but the clouds just sort of parted.
Now that your career has taken off so much, it just seems every tour you go out, it's bigger venues and more nights and you're selling out and headlining festivals. Does it matter? Obviously it's good, but if you’re reaching the divine, does it matter if you're playing at The Capitol Theatre or to 50 people in a bar?
Yeah, it certainly does. I mean, I'm not gonna lie and say that I would feel just the same playing in the coffee house for tips as I do at the Mission Ballroom. I mean, you walk out on stage in front of a couple thousand people and they're all screaming and they want to see some magic. That shit lights a fire under your ass. And it's always been my dream. When I was in middle school, I worshiped Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, James Brown, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, just people like that who are larger than life. I still don't think those kind of people exist anymore, but I never thought it was gonna be an option to even be on stage in front of thousands of people cheering for me. It's a childhood dream come true.
And to the extent those people do exist, you've played with a bunch of them - like Billy!
Yeah, that's true. I mean, they do exist, but they're getting... Tom Petty died and Gregg Allman and all those cats, man. Willie Nelson is still here, God bless him. But those real fucking rock stars, where they walk into a room and you're just like, "Holy shit, that's Mike Campbell!" And they show up in the leather fucking jacket smoking a cigarette. Keith Richards? Those guys are... It's kind of the bluegrass thing too, all the older bluegrass legends are kind of dying off and there's not very many left as far as the old guard.
Well, there's Del McCoury, who you played with a bunch, right?
Absolutely. Yeah, and he's one of the OGs for sure. Del McCoury was in Bill Monroe's band. I've sat in the studio with David Grisman. I've recorded with Chris Thile and Béla Fleck and cats like that and it does blow my mind. I'll always be able to say that I recorded music with David Grisman. Holy fuck! David Grisman is literally sort of a god among men. His musicality… just listen to that DGQ record, it's all there. Nothing has ever topped it yet.
Right. And he's a connection to Garcia and to all these bluegrass guys both.
Right, he is. Yeah, he's got the connection to Jerry but also Doc Watson and Tony Rice.
How important is it to you that your success in playing to all these crowds we're talking about has also probably turned a lot of younger people onto bluegrass? Do you care about that or do you just look at it as your own thing?
No, I do care about that. I kind of take pride in that, actually. A lot of the more traditional kind of folks don't like what we're doing and say that we're not bluegrass and that we're junk or whatever. Of course, every band will have haters and people that love you. But I grew up on Bill Monroe's music, and I got a pretty good handle on it and if I could sit down with some of these people and have a conversation and maybe pick a couple songs, I think I could change their mind about what they think about me. Not that it really matters - and there's also a part of me that kind of enjoys pissing them off. [laughs] Whenever I see more traditional folks just hating on us, it just makes me feel good that we just played for four nights in front of however many thousand people and, I mean, this little bluegrass band is still playing at the Tavern or whatever. It's like, "Well, whether you like it or not, I'm still gonna play ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ tonight in my concert and there's probably gonna be a couple kids there who might learn about Ralph Stanley from me doing that." That is a big mission of mine. Whenever we play a show, I always at least add in some traditional bluegrass, because that's a part of who I am and that's how I cut my teeth. It's how I learned how to play music and that music saved my life. It's my heart and soul. Bluegrass music is everything I fucking live for. I just happen to like other stuff too, and I'm so hard pressed to write a song anyways, I can't be picky about which genre it is.
All genres have purists, but bluegrass seems to have this particularly strict group of people. Clearly, everything you're doing is just great for the music and it's bringing more people to it and not worth fighting about.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, that stuff doesn't bother me but like I said, I wish I could have a conversation with some of these folks and play a Doc Watson tune with them because,I just don't think they get it. Cause maybe they see two seconds of a song that is all jamming with distortion and stuff in a big psychedelic light show and they're going, "Wow, that's supposed to be bluegrass?" It's not. But I don't know. We're definitely bringing in some younger folks to the music, and that's cool. I feel like people nowadays... I mean, don't get me wrong. If you have like the stick and you wear the suits and you play into a single mic and stuff, and you have the Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs look going on and stuff, that's a cool vibe and that's definitely a thing. But I feel like people relate to me just ‘cause I show up in whatever skateboard T-shirt I was wearing that day and I'm just a regular dude that just happens to play music. For a while there, I did wear suits and flick my hair back and try to look all prim and proper and shit, and that just didn't work because it's not me. It's just not who I am. It felt uncomfortable and it felt like I was trying to be fake, somebody who I'm not. And I can't do that. I know that a big part of the entertainment business is putting on a face, but I want to be myself and I want people to know who I am.
And I think that that genuineness has come through and is what's allowed you to have the success you're talking about. Because the music might not always be pure, but the energy and the intent of playing great music is pure.
We may suck, but we're trying like hell. [laughs]
I'm just fucking with you, dude. [laughs] I know what you mean.
Tell me a little bit about working with Jonathan Wilson, who produced this record. and what the relationship was like.
It's hard to explain because it's almost like he didn't really do much but he did a lot by not doing much. He let us do our thing and I would tell him when I was looking for a specific sound and he'd pull out some old synthesizer, something that I have no idea how to use. I'd be like, "No, that's not it." And then he'd pull out something else, and it was, "Oh yeah, that's the exact sound I was thinking of in my head! Sweet." He was just there to support our creative endeavors, which is really awesome. He had some great ideas, but it was like we had already kind of made the Christmas tree in Nashville, and then we went out to Jonathan's studio in California to put on the ornaments and the little star on top. Out there, we had all of his random instruments and stuff like drums and triangles and he had Benmont Tench's piano in there. Plus, he's just a hell of a cool vibe. But for the most part, we just did our thing. The band and I really kind of produced it just as much and he was just open to everything and he made it easy for us to kind of get our ideas out.
Is there anything else about the album that you want to get across or say?
Shit, I don't know. I hope you folks enjoy it! It's been crazy. Last week it was number three on Billboard the vinyl charts, just above Billie Eilish and below Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift. Dude, that's fucking crazy, right? We sold more vinyls than Billie Eilish last week.
Yeah, that's cool.
Holy shit, bro. It's cause our fans like vinyls cause you can't roll a joint on an MP3.
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Bestsellers List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.