Watching guitarist Billy Strings onstage is akin to observing a hummingbird in its natural state.
Strings’ fingers zoom up and down the fretboard of his acoustic in an intricate and calculated frenzy. The scene may appear haphazard at first, but he’s in complete control, determinedly chasing that cosmic moment of improvisation.
“I grew up playing bluegrass with my dad. That’s how I cut my teeth when I was a little kid, and how I learned how to play music. But I learned how to perform when I was in a metal band, and that energy stuck with me,” Strings tells Rolling Stone. “There’s a lot of speed in both [bluegrass and metal]. When I think of Earl Scruggs on banjo, or some really fast bluegrass banjo, you can almost relate that to really fast metal or Slayer or something. It makes me feel almost the same thing — it’s fucking speedy.”
At 26, Strings (a.k.a.: William Apostol) is one of the fastest rising pickers of the last decade. Hailing from rural central Michigan, Strings (he was given the nickname by his aunt who recognized his abilities early on) has been a road dog for several years now, playing upwards of 200 gigs a year with his band, their black Sprinter van and a gear trailer. In 2017, he released the album Turmoil & Tinfoil, a collection of songs that, while based around the tenets of bluegrass, isn’t afraid to look forward or celebrate youth.
“You can’t stop us from dancing/ you can’t stop us from feeling high/ we can’t help it if we like to stay out all night,” Strings sings in the lead-off track “On the Line.” In the song “Dealing Despair,” he addresses the rising tide of hate in the U.S., howling, “You know I don’t want your opinion, I just want to blow out your brains.” Edgy stuff, to be sure.
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“I mean, there’s people out there that think what I do is absolutely insane or the opposite of bluegrass. And they’re not necessarily wrong, we do a lot of psychedelic, crazy stuff,” Strings admits. “But if you come and talk to me or sit down and pick with me, you won’t find somebody who’s more into the history of bluegrass or the fathers of bluegrass.”
Whether or not Strings “is” or “is not” bluegrass is up to a purist’s interpretation. But to his growing base of fans, he’s undeniably a thrilling live artist, delivering frenetic, head-banging performances that have made him a favorite of festival crowds. His “King & Strings” collaboration, with his electric guitar counterpart Marcus King, was the stuff of legend at Virginia’s Rooster Walk festival last summer.
“We’re never going to be a band that sells a million records. We’re just a band that’s going to sell a million tickets — one show at a time. That’s what we do. We’re a live band. Our thing is our show,” Strings says. “We’re going to have real fans, that really buy tickets, that really come to the show, that really are part of this family, which is what it feels like right now.”
It’s Strings’ own family that first exposed him to bluegrass. He was raised on the “high, lonesome sound” by his stepfather Terry Barber, a well-regarded guitar picker in his own right within Michigan and Midwestern bluegrass circles.
“[Bluegrass is] a reminder of my childhood. When I listen to Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers, it’s almost like a portal straight back to when I was a really young boy and the music that my dad played for me,” Strings says. “I’m really grateful he did that because I have a good life now, all because he taught me guitar, Doc Watson and stuff — it brings me back to that love for my dad. Everyday I’m onstage, I’m doing it for the old man.”
Last June, Strings’ personal and professional life came full circle when he found himself opening for the Del McCoury Band at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the onetime home of the Grand Ole Opry (Strings will make his Opry debut in March). At one point in the show, Strings appeared onstage to sing a duet with McCoury, with Barber by his side.
“That was a huge moment for [my dad], as well as me — a full circle thing,” Strings says. “He taught me about this music, and now I get to take him to the actual places where it was done.”
For a short period in 2017, Strings found himself playing guitar in the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. Known throughout his life as “Dawg,” the 73-year-old took Strings under his wing, sharing his knowledge and wisdom, something that’s at the heart of why folks are so attracted to the sounds, culture and lore that is bluegrass.
“I learned [from David] that there’s no surface that you could ever reach, as far as music,” Strings says. “I was riding around in a van with David for a week. And the whole time we were listening to Bill Monroe’s music. Dawg looked back at me and said, ‘Man, I’ve been listening to Bill Monroe for 50 years and I still haven’t scratched the surface.’ There’s still so much left to learn about Bill Monroe, and David has been studying him for 50 years now.”
It’s that notion of being “close to the source” — taking the time to sit and learn from the elders and passing it along — that Strings, like many bluegrass pickers, keeps top of mind. Still, he’s compelled to go against the grain as needed.
“Don’t be afraid to change [bluegrass] and make it your own. But at the same time, don’t lose the essence of bluegrass,” he says. “If you know about the ‘source’ or know about Monroe, then you can branch off from that. But I think you need to know about [the history] first.”
And be open to other genres too. He cites Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam and the death metal of his past as sounds that inspire him as a songwriter.
“Whenever I write music, I don’t try to write a bluegrass song or singer-songwriter song or anything. I try to let the songs just come out how they are,” he says. “Whether it’s bluegrass, folk, heavy metal or singer-songwriter, whatever it is, I don’t really know. I’m trying not to be in control of that; I’m really trying to let that be in control of me.”
However, as a fiercely independent artist, Strings isn’t willing to give up all control. “We’re not going anywhere we don’t want to be,” he says.
It’s that sense of rebellious freedom, both artistic and personal, that continues to motivate the phenom, who will launch a lengthy winter tour January 24th in Bloomington, Indiana.
“The reason I love this so much is because it is like we’re on a pirate ship,” he says. “Not because there’s somebody pointing their finger in my face saying, ‘I can’t believe you said the f-word onstage’ or ‘You can’t put this song on your record.’”