Billy Strings: Wheel to the Storm and Fly

Dean Budnick on May 21, 2021
Billy Strings: Wheel to the Storm and Fly

photos by Jesse Faatz

***

Billy Strings is flabbergasted.

That’s the word he uses to describe his state of mind on a Monday afternoon in March less than 24 hours after his record Home received a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

The nomination itself had taken him by surprise when he first learned of it four months earlier. Strings recalls, “I was playing my guitar and I heard my girlfriend [and tour manager, Ally Dale] holler from downstairs. She screamed real loud and I was like, ‘Did you cut yourself or something?’ Then she ran upstairs, gave me a big hug and told me: ‘Y’all got nominated for a Grammy.’ I couldn’t even believe that.”

After winning an award for what is only his second full-length studio effort, the 28-year-old guitarist is caught up in a whirlwind of congratulations. He’s already heard from three of his heroes: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck. The litany of well-wishers also includes the friends he’s made on the road, at home in Nashville and during his childhood in rural Michigan. (“People I’ve known from high school, middle school, even the elementary school playground in third grade hit me up,” he says.)

Looking back on the experience of recording Home, Strings is quick to hail the contributions of producer Glenn Brown, who had previously worked with him on 2017’s Turmoil & Tinfoil. He also singles out his bandmates—banjo player Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat and mandolinist Jarrod Walker—who entered the studio together as a unit for the first time to create the album.

Now, less than a day after the Recording Academy bestowed its honor, Strings is both appreciative and astounded.

“Just making that record was an achievement in itself,” he acknowledges, “because it was only my second one and I’m still learning how to use the studio as an instrument. In the studio you can do magic—you can overdub, you can do big harmonies on the vocals, you can do oohs and aahs, whatever you want. Even on Turmoil, I wanted to dive in and get weird, and not just with an acoustic guitar, a banjo, a mandolin and a upright bass. I’m totally fine with synthesizers and drums, or harmonica and jaw harp. I’m up for anything I can get my hands on—a didgeridoo, even a fricking goat.”

But while no quadrupeds appear on Home, Strings’ exuberance speaks to the boundless, resourceful spirit of his music.

It’s this open-ended, exploratory bent that prompted a Michigan television reporter on the day following the ceremony to ask the newly minted Grammy winner: “This isn’t your daddy’s bluegrass is it?”

Strings answered with a laugh, “Well, it could be. It depends on what your dad’s into…”

***

Dads—and moms and kids—of all stripes had plenty to choose from when Billy Strings and his band took the stage for six shows at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., three weeks prior to the Grammys ceremony. The group performed more than 100 songs, including a dozen new originals, material from Strings’ records and a range of covers written by or associated with such artists as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Jimmy Cliff, The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Blackfoot and Creedence Clearwater Revival—as well as multiple selections each night by the Grateful Dead, whose six-night run 50 years earlier provided a template for the Billy Strings residency.

These six dates—dubbed The Deja Vu Experiment, to coincide with the Dream Telepathy Experiment conducted by Stanley Krippner at the Grateful Dead’s February 1971 shows—marked the quartet’s return to the venue following two sold-out shows on Jan. 17 and 18, 2020.

Bassist Royal Masat, who joined Strings’ band in 2016—shortly after his group ChessBoxer completed a two-year stretch backing Warren Haynes on the Ashes & Dust tour—says of the 2020 run at the venue: “I’ll never forget those shows because they were such a memorable experience. At first, I was like, ‘Not only do we get to play the Cap, but we also get to play for two nights?’ And then, finding out we had also sold out both of them, seemed like a statement we had never made before.”

However, he adds, “Not long after we had that elevated experience, the rug was yanked out from underneath all of our feet. We had put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears for two and a half years with this lineup but all the momentum we’d been building up had nowhere to go when everything was canceled.”

Indeed, a little more than a month later, the band had to shut down their touring operation due to COVID. By the time the quartet made it back to Port Chester for opening night on Feb. 18, 2021—50 years to the day after the Grateful Dead kicked off their 1971 run—it had been nearly 12 months since the group had played in front of a traditional audience. And the Cap run would similarly take place without the group’s boisterous throngs.

While Billy Strings and his bandmates are dynamic, dexterous players, they also credit the role that the audience plays in shading the character of their performances. Strings asserts matter-of-factly, “The crowd is in control. They’re part of the band, as far as I’m concerned. If they want an energetic show and they give us some energy, they’ll get it. If they want to lay around and be lazy stoners, maybe we’ll play kind of a lazy, sleepy show that day.”

By February 2021, the four musicians had already regrouped for a few streaming gigs, although not at a venue of a similar scale to the Cap for a six-night run.

Jarrod Walker, who had been playing in more traditional bluegrass settings before completing the current lineup in late summer 2017, observes, “You try to put the significance of a place like The Capitol Theatre out of your mind because you can psych yourself out if you think about the people who have played there: the Dead, the Stones, Janis, the list goes on and on. It’s kind of like playing the Ryman; you don’t want to be onstage the whole time thinking, ‘This is where Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and Flatt & Scruggs all stood.’ If you start thinking like that, then you’re not really playing music and you end up doing something else entirely.”

The Cap run came with an additional potential distraction—the shows were streamed via FANS and The Relix Channel on Twitch, drawing in a live audience that far exceeded the theater’s physical capacity.

 “At set-break on the first night, Ally Dale came up to us and said, ‘You won’t believe this. There are 22,000 people out there watching,’” Walker remembers. “As I’m hearing this, I’m trying to treat it as a statistic, so that I don’t psych myself out or start worrying about the facial expressions I’m making onstage. I didn’t want to get caught up too far in my head.”

In watching the band play with such artistry and aplomb over the six nights, one might not think that any of these distractions impacted the musicians onstage. However, one person in particular did experience some serious jitters: bandleader Billy Strings.

“Before COVID, when I would be in the green room and I’d hear all the people coming into the venue hooting and hollering, I would sometimes start to get this anxiety,” he reveals. “What’s crazy, though, is that it even happened at the Cap. The first night we went out there, I don’t know if it was a panic attack but I really freaked out for a second. I had microdosed before the show and I thought I might have accidentally taken too much acid. When I walked out onstage I was visually impaired. But it turned out, I just got super nervous that first night. I think it’s worse when there’s not a crowd there and I’m just playing for cameras. It’s super weird.”

Shortly after he makes this disclosure, Strings explains, “I’m not gonna pretend like I’m tough. I’ve found that I need to be the realest version of myself that I can be at all times. I need to be honest about how I’m feeling in the moment with whoever’s in front of me, whether it’s my family or my girlfriend or a big audience. I need to be myself whether I’m onstage or not. For instance, I cuss when I talk, and that’s just how it is. There came a point where I was like, ‘I can’t pretend to be this prim and proper kid’ because I’m not. I’m a fucking skater punk and if I put on this fake thing, it’s unhealthy for me. It doesn’t feel good.

“I’m just this dude who plays guitar,” he continues, while expounding on the nature of his discomfort. “Sometimes I think, ‘If I was a masked musician, like someone in Slipknot, or in a band like KISS, then that would be awesome.’ One time, I played a show wearing ICP face paint and I felt so empowered because it wasn’t me up there; it was like this other character.”

In certain respects, though, he is another character, because nearly a decade ago, William Apostol transformed into Billy Strings.

***

William Apostol was raised in the small town of Muir, Mich., home to 633 other individuals in 2000, as per the census. By then, the 8-year-old aspiring musician had already been playing guitar for half his life, encouraged by his music-loving mother Debra and his stepfather, Terry Barber, himself an avid picker.

“I grew up in small-town America playing bluegrass with my dad,” he recalls. “It felt like I was born to do it. I’d play with him and his friends, like Brad Lasko, who owned this campground, Barkus Park. Some nights, we’d sit around the campfire playing. There were also some bluegrass festivals there. That place later turned into a crazy Breaking Bad scene but when I was just starting out playing with my dad, those were some of my happiest days.”

After a few years of accompanying Barber on an acoustic, Strings acquired his first electric guitar around age 10. “It was a little red Squier Mini Stratocaster with a Pignose amp. That’s when I started learning about Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It was also the first time that I started taking solos. I was only a rhythm guitar player up until then. My dad took all the leads and I just played chords but, when I got the electric guitar, I started playing Jimi Hendrix solos and that led me to some really great stuff.

“By the time I was in middle school, I started getting into metal, mostly because I was itching to play music with people who were my age and were into video games and skateboarding like I was. The only music going on in that town was grindcore and this metal scene. I started going to these little shows because my friends had a band but I hated it at first. I grew up listening to Doc Watson and, when I walked in, it didn’t sound like music to me. But I eventually acquired a taste for it and now I love death metal. When I started getting into it, that’s when I joined this band called To Once Darkened Skies.”

He remained with the group into high school and one can check out a YouTube clip of the 14-year-old in action at Oneida Gospel Church, just two days before Christmas in 2006. After To Once Darkened Skies broke up, Strings joined a more melodic heavy band, A Day of Moments. However, the guitarist indicates that some offstage commotion during this era had a lasting impact: “With that first band, we’d get into all these fights and then we would get a new vocalist. Finally, we broke up. So I joined this other band and my guitarist became addicted to heroin, which sort of ripped the band apart. Later on, I got in this duo with Don Julin and then that fell apart because the two of us couldn’t get along anymore. That’s when I really started Billy Strings because I figured, ‘OK, I can’t break up.’”

A few years before that final transformation, the guitarist returned to his acoustic origins, prompted by some unexpected affirmation.

“I didn’t necessarily walk around telling everybody I played bluegrass. It seemed sort of hokey,” he concedes. “But I was at this party with a couple friends and I didn’t know many people. I felt out of place, but there was a guitar in the corner. So I picked it up, played ‘Black Mountain Rag’ and my friends lost their minds. I really hadn’t seen that coming.

“It was around this time when I realized that I missed playing bluegrass with my dad like I did when I was younger and everything was good. So we started doing that again.”

After graduating from high school in 2011, he moved to Traverse City, Mich. with a renewed focus on playing acoustic music and began testing out the waters at open-mic nights. It was early on during this process that he first identified himself as Billy Strings. His nickname had been Boomer throughout his childhood, but when he was very young, his Aunt Mondi noticed him performing with the adults and commented, “Look at little Billy Strings over there trying to keep up.”

Strings credits his aunt with looking out for him as a youngster so, shortly after she passed away due to cancer, “I wrote my name on the chalkboard as Billy Strings in her honor. I had always thought it sounded cool. And, it wasn’t long after that when I got my first little gig at a brewery, just playing by myself, and they put Billy Strings on the poster. So I ran with it. I made these little business cards on Vistaprint and started putting that out there.”

During this era, Strings continued to work steadily on his chops, gaining local renown for his fire and precision on the instrument. This led Don Julin, an area mandolin player and educator, to approach him about performing in tandem. Julin, who was 30 years his senior and the author of Mandolin for Dummies, carried himself with a certain professional bearing, leading them to perform in formal attire.

Despite their mode of dress, Strings recollects, “When I was wearing a suit with Don Julin, playing mostly traditional stuff, there was this energy that was almost reminiscent of what I had been doing in the metal bands. It’s this high speed, breaking-a-sweat kind of playing. It was almost my shtick, like, ‘You gotta see this kid; he plays really fast and hard.’”

Ultimately, though, the guitarist turned a corner with an increased emphasis on his original tunes, rather than high intensity takes on bluegrass standards. This shift in focus developed over a few years, as the guitarist gained confidence in his songwriting. Still, it’s fair to say he came blasting out of the gate; the first song he completed as Billy Strings was “Dust in a Baggie.”

A video that captures one of the tune’s initial performances—from a basement in his home county of Ionia—has received over 15 million views.

“I remember that night to a tee. It’s around the same time that I started playing in Traverse City,” he reflects. “I came back home and went to a couple of different house parties. We ate some mushrooms and we were down in the basement hanging out. There was a whole party going on upstairs but we didn’t want to be around all the loud, drunk people. The dude in the green shirt smoking the unlit cigarette is the one hippie in town, my friend Barefoot Ben. It’s hilarious that the video has so many views because we were just tripping on shrooms, having a good-ass night.

“I had probably written the song a month earlier. I previously wrote some instrumental music for the metal bands but we always had a singer who took care of the lyrics. ‘Dust in a Baggie’ is about meth heads in Ionia because that’s what was going on at the time. Completing that one really started something for me; although, when it comes to writing songs, I’m searching for something I haven’t quite achieved. I’m still trying to find it.”

***

In early 2016, Strings decamped for Nashville, quickly enmeshing himself in his newfound artistic community. He put out a call for a roommate via Facebook and Molly Tuttle soon moved in with the guitarist and Ally Dale. Tuttle recalls, “It was a fun time because we were on a musical street. We had Lindsay Lou across the street from us and there was music happening on the front porches all the time. Everyone was going off on tour and then coming home, reconnecting and jamming.”

Strings’ current lineup crystallized over the ensuing 18 months. Billy Failing arrived in Nashville after studying banjo at Berklee and then living in New York for a stretch. Failing recalls, “I first jammed with Billy in New York City at a bar called Mona’s where they have a Monday night bluegrass session and we hit it off. He moved to Nashville shortly after I did and our friends Lindsay Lou and Josh Rilko knew that Billy was looking for a new band to put together. They also knew that I was looking for a band to play with, so they kind of set us up. I remember an early gig where Billy and I played as a duo for like five people in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s wild thinking about how things have changed.”

Royal Masat was the next to enter the fold. The bass player grew up in Texas and had toured the country at a young age, playing in a bluegrass-gospel band with his three older siblings. After college, he too relocated to Nashville, arriving in 2012 at the behest of his brother, who helped him land a gig. Over the years that followed, he toured with Rebecca Frazier and his own group, ChessBoxer. Then, during the summer of 2016, he happened upon a video that the Bluegrass Situation had posted of Billy Strings performing “Meet Me at the Creek,” with Don Julin, in February of that year.

“It was really awesome and dynamic,” Masat remarks. “I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I had grown up in bluegrass but then came to realize that if you stay within the bounds of a traditional bluegrass bass, it can be a bit limiting. I had wondered if I was ever going to be fulfilled playing bluegrass because there wasn’t enough opportunity for musical expression. But when I saw this video, I was like, ‘Man, this is the way I would want to play if I was going to play bluegrass.’”

Masat would soon receive his chance, sparked by an invitation from fiddle player John Mailander to attend a Phish show at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater on Oct. 18, joining a crew that also included Strings, with whom Mailander had performed and recorded. (Foreshadowing things to come, it’s fitting that this was the night when Bob Weir joined Phish for the encore and Masat wistfully recollects, “There was this energy in the air, a euphoria that I had never experienced in my life. It was insane. It was like everybody felt they had just arrived at their place of safety.”) Strings invited Masat to a rehearsal shortly thereafter and the bassist declares, “We hit the ground running.”

Jarrod Walker’s introduction to the group was something of a trial by fire. Walker had met Masat when both musicians toured with Rebecca Frazier. By the late summer of 2017, Walker had just completed a run of dates with Claire Lynch, who was then preparing to take some extended time off the road. When he heard through musical circles that Strings was looking for a mandolin player, he contacted Masat about the opportunity.

Walker remembers, “Based on Royal’s recommendation, they flew me out and we played a show the next day. It was pretty wild. I listened to the songs on the plane ride over but, aside from that, I didn’t have any time to learn the material. We rehearsed on the sidewalk outside of the venue for an hour or so, and that’s where I learned ‘Meet Me at the Creek’ and ‘Turmoil & Tinfoil.’”

The mandolin player grew up in Florida, where he came into his own within bluegrass circles at a young age. Along with his brothers Cory and Tyler, he attended the weekly jam sessions at Tampa’s Bluegrass Parlor and joined a rotating roster of younger players in a band based out of that shop. He recalls performing at “these really traditional bluegrass festivals—the ‘lawn chair bluegrass experience,’ where if somebody went onstage with drums, those lawn chairs would snap and it sounded like gunshots going off.”

Walker adds that prior to his initial appearance with Billy Strings, “I had been playing at these PACs [Performing Arts Centers] and that kind of audience is way different than an audience at a Billy Strings show. They sit there and politely clap but, at a Billy Strings show, they’re raising hell. With Billy we are playing to a crowd of considerably younger people than I was used to and everybody was standing up. The amount of energy that people were giving back to us was new to me. I didn’t know that a bluegrass band could incite that kind of reaction from a crowd.”

***

There was no in-person audience at The Capitol Theatre when the opening night of The Deja Vu Experiment unfurled on Feb. 18. Although Strings initially found this almost debilitating, he soon surmounted any anguish.

“When we started the show, I felt kind of physically challenged due to anxiety but, by two-and-a-half songs in, it just all went away,” he divulges. “I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I felt like I could take a big deep breath and get these massive gulps of oxygen. I felt fucking great.”

With the bandleader back on track, the quartet was primed to implement a plan of action that had been set in motion for a number of months, or perhaps 50 years, depending on one’s perspective.

Billy Strings was raised on bluegrass, not the Grateful Dead, and his path to the band led from Doc Watson to David Grisman to Jerry Garcia. However, he had long since become an ardent fan, who contributed liner notes to GarciaLive Vol. 14 and accepted his Grammy while seated in front of a concert poster from the Dead’s two nights at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in August 1966.

So Strings was keen to honor the group during a six-night stand at the Cap that would mirror the band’s 1971 run, including a new take on Krippner’s Dream Telepathy Experiment.

“That kind of stuff has always interested me—the way that somebody can feel someone else’s presence or that multiple people will say the exact same thing. Sometimes the Grateful Dead will communicate without talking,” Strings says. “They’ll make stuff up on the spot, without quite knowing how it will end but still lock into something together. Now, the Krippner experiments—those were something else. Putting an image on the screen and telling people to send it to someone else with their minds is experimenting with consciousness. I mean what kind of band does that?”

What kind of band? A band willing to embrace exploration, transformation and the ineffable.

Unlike Krippner’s efforts, in which the receiver was asleep in a laboratory, The Deja Vu Experiment called for fans to target individuals who were awake and aware. The results proved inconclusive, although there were a few tantalizing correlations. On night one, when the image was a pair of eyes, Oteil Burbridge drew an owl, a creature of notable ocular ability. (An owl also appeared on the poster art for an upcoming stream by the Kitchen Dwellers, who played the post-show.) Three nights later, Dave Schools drew a C, which did not correlate with the evening’s illustration of a mouth, however, during a setbreak interview, Krippner specifically referenced that letter of the alphabet.

Backstage at the Cap: Jarrod Walker, Billy Strings, Royal Masat, Billy Failing (l-r)

Beyond the Experiment itself, Strings believes that the exercise amplified his group’s ability to connect with fans during the six nights.

“I think the whole ESP thing helped us tune in,” he suggests. “I had my antenna out and I was trying to receive as much as I could. I was looking beyond the walls of the Cap, trying to feel people’s vibes. Before we went onstage, we’d say to ourselves, ‘OK, we’ve got to try to feel the folks and give them what they need, give them their medicine.’”

In preparing that medicine, Strings worked out detailed setlists well in advance of the shows. He used the Procreate app on his iPad to sketch out 120 dots, the approximate number of songs the band would perform, and then he assigned different colored dots to various groupings.

One of these categories was for Grateful Dead material, which appeared throughout the run, supplying bright-hued connective tissue.

When asked to identify their most memorable take on a Dead tune from the residency, all four musicians cite “Cassidy.”

Strings raves, “It’s an incredible song. It goes from major to minor and the melody is just so beautiful. I love singing it.”

The band members also point to the segued triumvirate of “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower,” particularly the challenging middle selection.

“With ‘Slipknot,’ we took our time. It’s one of the more arranged, technical pieces of music that they have,” Masat explains. “When you get to the end of ‘Help on the Way,’ all of a sudden, you’re on a roller coaster. It’s pretty heady stuff. In order to show it the respect that it deserves, we all took some personal time before we put in the effort as a band. We needed those sections to be technically correct, but we also had to find a tempo where these bluegrass instruments could play the crazy passages in a comfortable way and make sure that it all grooved. It was kind of daunting with just four instruments, especially after listening to the live versions.”

The band’s decision to pay tribute to the Dead also impacted the setlists in another way, prompting them to debut some songs from their forthcoming album-in-progress with producer Jonathan Wilson. (Strings notes, “He’s an amazing guy who brings a great vibe into the studio. He’s also able to interpret my weird adjectives when I say, ‘I’m looking for something that sounds kind of purple and spiky and elongated and sustaining,’ He’ll go, ‘OK, I’ve got a pedal for that.’”)

“I didn’t want to do any repeats at the Cap because people are tuning in every night,” Strings comments. They heard ‘Dust in a Baggie’ last night; they don’t want to hear it tomorrow. But I realized that we had a five-gallon bucket full of brand new songs that we’d never played, and that the Dead debuted songs of their own during the same run 50 years ago. So I decided, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do what the Dead did.’ We even played one of our new songs inside of ‘Dark Star,’ because that what’s they had done when they debuted ‘Wharf Rat’ [on 2/18/71]. It was all so fresh with those songs. I felt like we were walking on little baby deer legs.”

“We had energy from the studio with this new collection of songs and we were able to channel that into the shows. So not only were these songs some of the highlights but they helped add excitement to everything else we did,” Failing observes.

Strings’ bandmates were particularly vested in the new material because he had fostered a collaborative songwriting environment for the album.

“We rented an Airbnb in Nashville,” Walker recalls, “and we took the time to sit down and try to write together. I think Billy’s inspiration was The Doors, who would write a lot of their stuff that way. We all were sharing our ideas freely. I think having a record under our belts that was as well-received as it was became a confidence boost for all of us.”

“Those are my boys,” Strings says of the three musicians with whom he played over 180 shows in 2018, and nearly 150 in 2019 before COVID curtailed their travels in 2020. “Think about the meaning of the word ‘band.’ We band together. We’re family, we’re friends, we’re thick as blood.”

Still, while Strings deeply values his bandmates’ contributions, he also believes that, when it comes to lyrics, his best songs are personal.

“When I’m doing it right, I become overwhelmed with emotion. It’s about my life experiences and it’s therapeutic for me to write those songs. The important thing is to write each song on its own terms, rather than considering what people might think about it. If I’m writing a song and I say to myself, ‘Oh, they’re going to love this!’ then fuck that song. But if I’m writing a song and I want to call my brother or mom afterward, then that’s the one.

“Sometimes I’m not even sure what the message is until much later. One night I was singing ‘Away From the Mire,’ while I was going through a rough moment with anxiety. The lyrics are ‘Let go of the pain and hold on to the rhythm.’ And as I was singing it, I had this great realization that when I wrote it, I was speaking to myself. I was telling myself to let go of all that shit.”

In 2019, the International Bluegrass Music Association named Billy Strings Guitar Player of the Year. But beyond his technical mastery, it’s his authenticity that continues to animate his music and, in turn, the fans who are drawn to that music. It informs the band’s original compositions, song selections, improvisational ethos and even their approach to tradition.

Walker reflects, “My musical DNA is bluegrass. What we’re doing with Billy Strings is using that as a foundation to create something new. We have the utmost respect for the pioneers of bluegrass, but you have to make music within the time that you live. None of us grew up in a cabin churning butter. So we’re paving a new path that’s honest to us while being true to bluegrass.”

Masat adds, “We can go from playing a jam vehicle of ours like ‘Meet Me at the Creek’ to a Stanley Brothers song, and make that transition back and forth because it comes naturally. We’re comfortable with both of those feels because both of those feels are natural expressions for us.”

In gathering his final thoughts on the Grammy win, Strings emphasizes that even though the award was for the bluegrass category, it calls to mind something larger.

“Winning a Grammy is not something I had ever imagined for myself. I barely know how to process it. But the thing is, I’m still the same skater kid I always was. I’m also still the guy who’s going to headbang, freak out and start running up and down the stage when stuff starts popping off. That’s who I am. I can’t wait to be back on the bus with my band, making a setlist, putting strings on my guitar, playing video games in the back, just hanging out with my boys. My band is my family and the road is my home, and that’s where I’m at. That’s what it’s all about for me.”