Hopping off the tailgate of his Sprinter touring van, Billy Strings readies himself for a rollicking set at the inaugural Railbird festival in Lexington, Kentucky. The six-string virtuoso grabs his guitar and tunes up, running through a few signature licks.
Strings sits back down and observes the other bands and festivalgoers milling about backstage. You can see it in his eyes: he’s engaged in a constant stream of thought as his fingers move up and down the fretboard. But that’s Strings — always watching. He takes those observations and uses them to inform the songs on his new album Home, released via Rounder Records last week, just a few hours after Strings was named New Artist of the Year and Guitar Player of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards show in Raleigh, North Carolina.
To some, the 26-year-old represents a breakaway from traditional acoustic music. But with his fresh, exploratory approach to bluegrass, folk, and country, he also symbolizes the evolution of the genre. Strings is out to preserve, but also advance, just like Sam Bush, David Grisman, and Bela Fleck before him.
We talked to Strings about his new album, the string-music resurgence, and how he fits into the strict confines of bluegrass.
Watching you play, it’s easy to see that there is an old-soul mentality about you. Where does that come from?
I guess it comes from my parents, being raised around them. And growing up in Michigan where family means a lot and friends mean everything, and in small communities. I’m always tied to my past. It’s a weird kind of yin and yang thing. Sometimes I feel like it haunts me and sometimes I feel like it propels me forward. I’m still working hard, but I’ve been working my ass off for the last six or seven years. Not to sound cliché, but I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve always wanted to be a frontman of a cool band, out touring the country, meeting people, and having experiences. I’m a roamer, man.
And yet you’ve titled your new album Home.
Well, I’m starting to feel at home in my life. I’m 26. It’s the second record. I got a nice little house in Nashville. I feel at home there. And I’m starting to feel at home with all of “this.” We were just talking about my lifestyle and the traveling. “Home,” as in what did it mean to you growing up? What was your home like? What was your childhood like? What were your parents like? What was the family dynamic like? Was it destructive or was it peaceful or was it loving? Everybody has their own version of home.
A lot of times my songs and inspirations, and stuff that I use for songs, is drawn from back home in Ionia, Michigan — growing up there and just thinking about the old house I used to live in and all the crazy people that used to come in and out of it.
You had a big showing at this year’s IBMAs, so you’re still very much in the bluegrass community, even if your music is not fully traditional.
As crazy and psychedelic and sort of weird as our stuff gets with my original music, I grew up playing Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, listening to Larry Sparks — that’s what I cut my teeth on. That’s how I learned how to play, by listening to all that stuff and playing that stuff. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know about progressive bluegrass really. I knew about the Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival sort of. It was a pretty traditional bluegrass upbringing.
But [IBMA recognition] makes me feel really good, actually, because sometimes I wonder about that, you know? I experiment with sounds. Some people aren’t wrong when they say, “Oh, that’s not bluegrass or anything,” because it’s not. But when I get recognized, that really makes me feel good, because I love traditional bluegrass. I’m passionate about it and it’s in my heart and soul forever. I’m just glad to still be accepted into that community, as well as being allowed to express myself in an original way, and in ways that are not so traditional.
Americana and string music songwriters — yourself, Tyler Childers, Brandi Carlile, Greensky Bluegrass — are working their way into the mainstream right now, selling out big shows and headlining large-scale festivals. What does that say about the scene and what people are looking for?
People are looking for something real. They’re looking for some good songs and they’re looking for some honest, good people singing them. I think music does that every once in a while. It happened in the 1960s, the “Folk Revolution,” the acoustic scene. There was a folk revival. The hippies wanted to be barefoot and play acoustic instruments. Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and those guys back then, that was after the rock & roll boom. So as great as rock & roll was, and as great as Little Richard, Elvis, Buddy Holly and all those cats were, eventually it comes around to, “Man, I want to hear some acoustic guitar again” and “I just want to hear somebody singing and playing.”
Does that reflect on where our society is now, where people don’t feel there’s much opportunity to connect on a human level in the digital age?
Yeah, I think so. Music goes in circles. People got sick of loud rock & roll and then they wanted folk music again, and then rock & roll came back. And then in the 1970s, rock & roll was fucking great. Some of the best bands ever came out. And then, disco fucking happens. And then after that, people got fucking sick of disco and they wanted to hear some good fucking music again. Then something came along that was good. That’s how it happens.