Over the years, many people have visited the scenic Traverse City, MI, one of the crown jewels of the Michigan tourism industry. Behind the sprawling vineyards, the postcard scenic drives and the summer stampede of tourists is a young, vibrant, artistic town with a culture all its own. When the lights go out, the scene comes alive with a number of small venues, from coffee shops to bars all set up for live music. A few years back, on the hunt for an ice cold IPA, I peeled off into a little spot called “Brew” and in the dim lit, packed, narrow space came the bellowing sounds of an acoustic guitar and voice that would give any bluegrass frontman a run for their money. I march my way closer and find myself in front of this performer, with vibrant tattoos, torn gauges in his ear lobes, a guy with punk rock veracity and a seasoned voice, blasting traditional bluegrass tunes like they were new.
I asked the guy next to me “Who is this?” – the guy looks at me, like I was crazy and in disbelief says “Dude… you don’t know Billy Strings?!” Well… I do now, dude, me and many others as Billy Strings has exploded onto the scene. Billy has an authenticity about him that is backed up in his music and his attitude and like many Midwesterners, their modesty can get the best of them and with the help of the reknownd mandolin artist Don Julin, the two set off for bigger stages. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Billy who currently resides in Nashville, TN about music, beer and well… his Midwestern roots.
So who is Billy Strings? “I am a working musician. I make my living driving and flying around the country to various music venues to perform.” My hometown is Ionia, MI. That’s where I grew up and cut my teeth on the music. I lived in Traverse City for a little while, there I was strongly encouraged to keep trying to make a go of it. The music scene up there is a life of it’s own. The people are so into it. I love TC. It’s home-sweet-home.”
There is a bit of a juxtoposition when seeing Billy on stage, his energy and youthful appearance bring new life to the traditional bluegrass songs he can often be found picking. Songs that are deeply entrenched in the “Apostol” family tree. “I learned all those old songs from my Dad” Billy mentions of his song choices, “he is a very talented guitarist and singer and he started me out real young. Often when preparing a setlist I think “what would Dad play?” So I learned from him. He learned from his Dad and Grandpa and so on so forth.” And while its his lineage that got him started, its his fellow musicians that have kept him going.
“I am really motivated by all of my dear friends that are in bands and out there killing it! It is a lot of work to try to make it as a musician, and seeing others succeed pushes me further and makes me want to keep chipping away at it. It’s a long hard rough and rocky road but it’s the life I chose…” Of cours as rocky as it may be, that’s not to say that there have been some bright spots along the way. Billy’s raw talent has allowed him to share the stage with some of the biggest names in bluegrass on stages from California to Caroline (and of course those “in between” states we hold dear to our heart). “I’ve played on stage with Del McCoury and David Grisman. These guys are as good as it gets. I am on a first name basis with many of the absolute best bluegrass musicians in the world and it is the highest honor for me.”
While not “trading guitar licks with Larry Keel” or “singing 3 part harmonies on stage with Del McCoury and David Grisman” we learned that Billy’s life has brought him into contact with more than just world reknowned pickers, but a fewer lesser known if you will. “I recently read this book called “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt. I like adventure novels, you know? Fictional stories. In the last few years I have become friends with John C. Reilly and he told me that he is making a film based on “The Sisters Brothers”. It’s going to be awesome!! Make sure you check out the book AND the movie when it comes out.” You heard it here first folks.
You can tell when talking to Billy that music is and will always be his first love and the focus of everything he is about. Musicians and artists can draw inspiration from many things but they all seem to have a trunk to their inspiration tree. “I am always inspired by my surroundings.” Billy notes, “when I was younger everything wasn’t always so easy. I saw my share of substance abuse and have lived in the deepest darkest depths of small town America. I am more likely to write a dark sad song than some lovey-dovey happy song because I use my own life experiences as inspiration and subject matter.”
While the acoustic, bluegrass feel can often at times be a calming and relaxing experience, Billy’s shows are the oposite end of the spectrum. “I love a good mellow campfire session, but there’s nothing calm or relaxing about my shows. The crowd gets rowdy and so do I. If you’re coming to a Billy Strings show, be prepared for some energy!” That energy may be aplified at his favorite place in the Midwest to play, when we asked where that may be, we recieved a quick and direct answer… “HOXEYVILLE!”
With 150 shows a year, you best find some time to catch a show. Of course, don’t expect that energy to wane either. Billy is poised for a big 2016, continuing to share the stage with some of the biggest names in the industry and continuing to make a name for himself. Of course, what is an interview without trying to capture the essence of what a MWG is. When asked the question, Billy chuckles, “Oh jeez.. all I can picture is a dude with an obnoxiously large beard in a Stormy Kromer.” Sounds about right to us. Check out Billy Strings during his tour and to everyone out there… keep stringin’.