The first time I saw Billy Strings, he was putting on a $3 show at The Bywater because his initial plan – opening for Yonder Mountain String Band in Charlotte – had been “hurricaned out.” According to Billy, lining up The Bywater show on short notice was an easy call.
“Honestly, we were like two hours away when that show got canceled. We posted online something about being sorry for that and somebody from Asheville invited us there and we were like, ‘yeah, let’s do this,’” he says.
It’s that kind of commitment to playing music anytime, anywhere, that has led to Billy (birth name William Apostol) becoming one of the hottest young names in bluegrass today. This Friday, Dec. 2, he will be at it again, playing at The Grey Eagle.
“Music is what I believe I was put on this earth to do,” he says. Before Billy turned 4 years old, he was playing along with his father to old Doc Watson tunes on a plastic children’s guitar. By the time he was five he had outgrown the toy and moved on to his own true acoustic.
Billy grew up in a musical family, where he found himself playing every day, heavily influenced both by those around him and an early and lifelong love of the finger-picking style of Watson and other old-school bluegrass icons. After forming several bands while in high school that played everything from punk to pop, he found his niche as a fingerpicker while living in Traverse City, Mich. as a 19 year old.
He played that local scene for several years and produced one remarkable compilation album with mandolinist Don Julin. Then he made the tough decision to head to Nashville to further his career.
“Michigan will always be home for me,” he expounds. “I grew up there and I love the scenery and the people and the lakes. I love the water. Lake Michigan is like my reset button. When I get stressed out, I can jump in that lake and everything kind of washes away,” he says.
“But Nasheville has been good for me,” he adds. “There are just so many people writing good music that I can bounce ideas off of.”
Not known as a prolific song-writer just yet, it’s obvious that it’s only a matter of time for Billy.
“I feel like a timid songwriter. My legs are shaky, but I’m finding my voice,” he says.
“I’m confident that I have a good batch of songs right now and we are just starting to play a lot of them live so, if you come out to Grey Eagle Friday night, you might hear some stuff off of the new album.”
Of course, that new album isn’t out quite yet. The current plan is to record it in January, though details haven’t been nailed down. One thing’s for sure, though: he’ll be recording this time with his band, rather than random musicians.
“It hasn’t been that long, just the past month or two, that I’ve been traveling with the same guys, but it has kind of settled in,” he tells me, referencing his band of Billy Failing on banjo, Brad Tucker on bass, and, as Billy describes him “Asheville’s secret weapon Drew Matulich” on mandolin.
“All of the guys have really stepped up and shown me that they want to do this for real. You can’t have a different bass player every week. It doesn’t work like that,” he says.
“You go to see a band that’s been together for ten years or something and that is why they are great. One of them twitches their eyebrow a certain way and the rest know what to do.”
As if chemistry on the stage isn’t enough, touring is one more thing that can break a band apart.
“It gets stressful on the road. You are living in a van for 30 days at a time. You have to be able to talk about things. If you can confront your bandmates about things and they can take it well, that is really what you need. Sometimes shit doesn’t go right,” he continues. “You’re late for a gig or someone’s gear isn’t working. You make mistakes on stage and it gets personal. You have to know that everyone is trying to do their best.”
Billy is a musician who always does his best, whether he’s jamming backstage with The Infamous Stringdusters, playing festivals with The Bluegrass Generals, or touring with David Grisman (whom he will be playing with at Grey Eagle on March 18). The opportunity to see him play with his band, in a venue of this size, is probably short-lived. So make your plans, and call your friends, and five years from now you, like me, will be able to say “I saw him when… .”
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.