Billy Strings is a fascinatingly unpredictable performer

That ain’t bluegrass

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Music is a family business for William Apostol, aka Billy Strings. His father, Terry Barber, is an accomplished bluegrass guitar picker, and his uncle Brad picked a mean banjo. And once you hear what Strings can do on an acoustic guitar, his talent becomes obvious.

Strings, who got the nickname from his aunt, is absolutely dazzling, tossing off impossibly fast solos that sparkle like a mountain stream and singing in a sweet-and-sour tone that recalls Doc Watson.

“My Dad introduced me to Doc, and he’s always been my favorite,” Strings says. “But he introduced me to all the other bluegrass dudes, too: Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Larry Sparks, and Ralph Stanley with Keith Whitley.”

On closer inspection, though, Strings’ technical mastery of his instrument might come from some decidedly non-bluegrass sources, as well. “My dad also showed me Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “I feel like I’m just as influenced by Johnny Winter as Doc Watson sometimes.”

It’s an interesting mix of styles that has made Billy Strings, just now in his mid-20s, a fascinatingly unpredictable performer. He has a sense of tradition that dovetails nicely with a sense of stagecraft. This isn’t a player that’s content to stand behind a mic onstage in a suit and play the classics. He’s more likely to perform in a T-shirt that shows off his nicely inked arms, and he and his band can get into some truly experimental territory.

“We’ll play some new song that’s totally far-out and progressive, and takes bluegrass as far as we can get,” he says. “And then the next song we’ll play The Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Gals Can Love,’ which is as straight as an arrow. I really love doing that, because if you’ve got younger people, they want to hear you go out on a limb and do some crazy stuff, but you might also have older folks there that just want to hear some good old bluegrass. I try not to pigeonhole myself in any way; I just call it music.”

The balance between innovation and tradition is an important one for any young bluegrass musician, but it’s one that Strings has thought about a great deal. “I really respect my dad’s style, and I want to carry that torch,” he says. “But I think that you need to make music that’s new while respecting the traditions. Think about Sturgill Simpson. He’s coming out with this crazy new stuff that’s amazing, but it really sounds like older country, and that’s what’s so good about it. It still has that integrity. You can make this new bluegrass that still has the chops of Bill Monroe and still has the drive of the bluegrass of the 1950s, and I think that’s really important.”

But the genre does have limits, and Strings, who will headline the Greenville Literacy Association’s Lyrics For Literacy show at Greenville’s Revel event space next Thursday, sees a lot of music slipping in that doesn’t quite fit. “It’s so hard to say what bluegrass is anymore,” he says. “People will call just about anything bluegrass. Some of the stuff I do, I wouldn’t consider it bluegrass. Bill Monroe is bluegrass. Del McCoury is pretty damn bluegrass, but people call Old Crow Medicine Show or Mumford & Sons bluegrass. That ain’t bluegrass. Or is it? Who’s to say? It’s such a broad word now.”

Billy Strings
Lyrics For Literacy: A Concert Event Benefiting GLA, w/ My Girl, My Whiskey & Me and Vilai Harrington
Thursday, May 11, 8 p.m.
Revel Event Center, 304 E. Stone Ave., Greenville
Tickets: $50–$120
864-467-3456 // lyricsforliteracy.brownpapertickets.com

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