Memo to Billy Strings. People will forgive many things: cross-genre experiments that come from a man equally in love with metal and psychedelia as he is with bluegrass; reworking classics in a modern sound; sticking true to the classics when the cool kids are doing experiments; name dropping Johnny Winter or Richie Blackmore as easily as Doc Watson.
Honestly, when you’re this good they’ll accept that while you were born William Apostol (mostly growing up in small town Michigan) you’re a budding flatpicking maestro deserving of the name Billy Strings, given to you by the beloved, and prescient, Aunt Mondi, who died before you got to play your first professional gig.
And lordy lordy lordy, you can win yourself a Grammy, for best bluegrass album in 2020, after a string of specialist awards in the years before like International Bluegrass Music Association guitar player of the year.
But today, looking at him shorn of the long locks that seemingly defined him in just about all the online videos showing him at fairs, gigs and pickup jam sessions dazzling with his playing, I think he may have crossed one line too many this time.
Dude, what happened to the hair?
“Well, I got sick of being on stage and taking a big breath and sucking it down my throat you know,” he says, chuckling. “That did happen you know. It would come down my face and I take a big breath to sing my next part and suck in a bunch of hair. Then I tried to put it back in a ponytail but it was like, I’m just gonna cut this shit off.
“The cool thing about it is I donated my hair, to some little kid who probably has alopecia or something. I was able to donate frickin’ two feet of good hair.”
That’s doubly generous you suspect, for who knows, in a few years some of that talent may seep in through the skull and there will be a new generation little Billy Strings blowing up a gig.
“There’s a little rock star out there somewhere, right,” he beams.
The “rock star” isn’t too far from the truth right now actually, figuratively and literally. By the time his fourth album, Home, picked up that Grammy, Strings was already getting written up in Rolling Stone and explaining to anyone who asked – and they all asked – how he’d been a fan of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and other hairy ‘70s rockers before reconnecting with the music that had always seemed to be around him and his family, like Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.
Yet, he also described himself as someone who had in his teens turned into a hardcore bluegrass purist who not only could go into detail on the intricacies of mountain harmonies would have scorned the idea of deploying his skills into a rock ‘n’ roll.
Now Strings is self-described as “flexible”, those early impure influences discernible in his (still pretty bluegrassy) own songs. What changed?
“I’ve also listened to so much other music there when I go to write my own music there’s a lot of different inspirations in there besides bluegrass,” he says. “I recently just kinda figured out the actual explanation for this is I am so hard pressed to write a song, period, and I can’t really be picky about which genre it is. If I end up writing a rock song, I’m not going to try and force it to be a bluegrass song. I write a bluegrass song now and then, and that’s really good, but I’m just trying to write music and keep the boundaries open.”
The plan, as is abundantly clear on the new album, Renewal, as well as in collaborations in recent times with fellow flexible roots musicians such as Sierra Ferrell and Molly Tuttle, is to keep all the options open.
“When we go in the studio, everything is fair game because music is boundary-less. If you want to play bluegrass music, there’s a certain kind of formula, but I just stop trying to play bluegrass and am just trying to play music.”
Understanding the rules is important when you sit in with someone at a show, having a musical language in common and knowing the parameters. But that doesn’t have to apply when you’re writing doing your own material. Is there something as crude as a switch in his head that when he is playing he goes from one mode to another, one structure to another? Or does it just come naturally?
“I’m not sure about the writing process. As I say, I’m not try to control that too much, just let it flow. But when we have a set list, let’s say we have a bluegrass song, I slip into a frame of mind that is, you know, I’m trying to sing it like a bluegrass guy. I’m trying to sing like I grew up hearing those sounds. Then maybe the next song will be a mournful song, a slow ballad, and I try to get into that frame of mind as well: sorrow, and dark cloudy days,” says Strings, before admitting a possible flaw in this approach.
“My vocal coach I think would hate that because he says that the songs are already written, I can’t make you feel anything; I can’t be up there trying to force emotion on people, I just need to sing the words and play the song, and that’s it. The melody is already there, the words are there and it’s sad because you set these words over F sharp minor. We’ve already done that work, you don’t need to force a sad song out.”
Even so, the style and sound are so deep in his bones that something older than his 28 years kicks in.
“I might look down [at the set list] and see now we’re going to play How Mountain Girls Can Love and I’m going to my Stanley Brothers roots. I’m going to try and sing a little bit like Keith Whitley or Roy Lee Centers or Ralph Stanley or a Carter,” he says.
“I think that comes from my dad. When I grew up listening to my dad [stepfather Terry Barber, talented amateur musician], man, when he sang a song, he sounded like the artist that he was covering. He didn’t just sound like Terry Barber singing a song; when he sang a Jimi Hendrix song, man he would sing it like Jimi. When he did a Doc Watson song or when he sang Ralph Stanley, he’d sound like Ralph. He was a master at conveying the actual emotion that you heard, almost a musical chameleon in a way.”
This does bring up a fascinating point with Strings. How did he find his voice, I mean literally in this case: not his songwriting voice but his singing voice? As an instrumentalist it probably wasn’t the first priority.
“Around the time I was like 15, 16, I was getting back into bluegrass real heavy. I started singing some of the old songs we used to play and I’d be out at parties with my friends, sitting around a campfire or something, and I’d pull out my guitar and started singing. One night this kid comes walking up, and I don’t take this guy to know fuck all about music. He’s like a football guy, a jock, what’s he know about music you know? He walks up and says hey man, I can even hear your voice: your guitar is louder than you are,” Strings says.
“And I go, fuck, he’s right. He is totally right: I am singing quiet because I’m scared, I’m timid. From then on I decided to just sing loud. It’s a big world, I should not be afraid to let people hear me, what I sound like. And it’s been a growing pain, a slow burn.”
Renewal is out on September 24.