In his mid-teens, Billy Strings was the lead guitarist in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, prog-rock band called A Day of Moments. He was a high school dropout and hadn’t touched an acoustic guitar in years. But one night at a house party, he saw an acoustic instrument and impulsively picked it up to play Doc Watson’s “Black Mountain Rag.” When he finished, he noticed that the chatter in the room had died down and everyone was staring at him.
“In those days,” he recalls, “I didn’t go around telling people I played bluegrass. It was just something I did with my dad, and I didn’t think anyone else would be interested. But when I played ‘Black Mountain Rag,’ the guys in my own band were saying, ‘We never knew you could play like that.’ That’s when it dawned on me that maybe people other than my dad and his friends would be interested in this music.”
Yeah, maybe that old mountain music wasn’t as musty and unhip as he’d thought. Maybe it could be a way to connect with his own generation. That light-bulb moment sent Strings back to bluegrass and back to school. It launched a career that led to his 2019 album, Home, which topped the Billboard Bluegrass chart and enabled him to headline pavilions, theaters and rock clubs all over North America. It was a long way from his early bluegrass shows when, he says, “maybe 20 people would show up and five of them would be knitting.”
Many roots musicians tell a similar tale. As young children, they learn music by playing along with their parents and older relatives. It might be bluegrass, Cajun, Irish, honky-tonk, gospel or bebop, but it’s part of the weddings, church picnics, backyard parties and other rituals of a community. When these youngsters reach puberty, they want to play something loud and fast with an attitude, so they join a punk or funk band or write protest songs. But as they pass out of their teens, they have an epiphany: That old-fashioned music they turned their backs on might actually be very cool.
Strings borrowed his mother’s car one day and saw a cassette tape hanging halfway out of the slot. He pushed it in and out of the speakers came bluegrass legends The Stanley Brothers singing “Rank Stranger.”
“It just tore my heart up,” he remembers. “I had a deep realization that bluegrass was in my soul. I realized I was just wasting my time playing these other musics.”
Well, actually, he hadn’t wasted his time on those other musics. His experience with Black Sabbath-like shredding and Grateful Dead-like noodling allowed him to put an original spin on his bluegrass picking at certain times. He can still play in a straight-ahead bluegrass style, but he can also take that style on a wild detour.
“He has such a unique sound,” says his friend and sometimes collaborator Molly Tuttle. “He can play a Doc Watson song and you feel like you’re hearing someone from the ’50s, and then on the next song he can put his guitar through an effects pedal and sound psychedelic.”
Strings and Tuttle have had astonishingly parallel careers. Both learned bluegrass guitar from their fathers — Strings in central Michigan and Tuttle in northern California. Both were guitar-picking prodigies while still teenagers. Both have been the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitarist of the Year (Strings in 2019, Tuttle in 2017-2018). They were even housemates in Nashville for several years and still sit in on each other’s studio recordings and live performances whenever possible.
More relevantly for this magazine, both decided to work at being singer-songwriters as well as instrumental virtuosos. For Tuttle, a Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch fan since she was 14, this had been the plan all along. For Strings, it was more an unexpected pivot after his career was already rolling.
On the one hand, the holy trinity of bluegrass guitar — Doc Watson, Clarence White and Tony Rice — became legends without writing many songs. On the other hand, Strings’ favorite artists in other genres — Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and the Dead — did write most of the songs they recorded. When he started listening to Bob Dylan, Strings realized, “He’s not a great guitar player like Doc, but he does the same thing with his words.”
Strings had launched his career doing dazzling versions of familiar songs, he says, but “when I started playing in front of a lot of people, I didn’t want to just be playing standards. Eventually, I told my band, ‘Man, we’ve gotta start playing our own songs.’ I also got pressure from the audience. People online would say, ‘I’d like to hear more of his own music.’”
“I don’t have a huge catalog of original tunes,” Strings admits, “and to be honest, I’m still a timid songwriter when it comes to showing my songs to other people. We are all our own worst critics, especially in music. I might write a song that I think is garbage or just not as good as it should be, but then someone comes up after a show and says, ‘That song helped me through a rough moment.’ That’s my biggest reward: when someone comes up and says, ‘Your song reminded me of my mother or my brother or my childhood.’
“With people who write their own songs,” adds Tuttle, “you not only get to hear their musicianship but also part of their personality. Like when I listen to Bill Monroe sing his own songs, I not only hear his singing and picking but I also learn more about his life. Or when I listen to Bob Dylan, sometimes his lyrics are nonsensical; sometimes his lyrics are really obvious. He let me know it was alright to write about anything.
“Maybe you’ve just gone through a breakup or just lost your job,” Strings continues, “you hear a song and you go, ‘Holy shit, that was made just for me.’ That still happens to me. I’ll hear Doc Watson’s ‘Alberta’ or Bill Monroe’s ‘I Haven’t Seen Mary in Years,’ and, man, it reminds me of my dad so much. I remember I was in the back of the van as we were driving through Idaho; it was pitch black back there and I was listening on my headphones to Bill, and I was just crying, because it reminded me of my dad teaching me music and how to be a man.”
Strings was born William Apostol in 1992 (he’ll turn 28 on October 3). He grew up in Ionia, Michigan, where his stepfather, Terry Barber, was a popular, non-professional guitarist and singer on the Michigan bluegrass scene. Before Billy was out of elementary school, he was good enough and knew enough repertoire to play rhythm guitar in his dad’s band. But when he was 12, Strings got the itch to play with people his own age, and in Ionia, that pretty much meant joining a metal band.
It was in his teenage rock bands that Strings blossomed as a lead guitarist, and when he returned to bluegrass after his aforementioned epiphany, he was eager to play lead on those tunes. But when he tried to play a pentatonic blues-rock solo on Watson’s “Beaumont Rag,” it just didn’t work. “So I asked my dad to show me how he played it,” Strings recalls, “and it hit me: He’s playing the melody.”
He soon learned that melody was as important to songwriting as it was to soloing. Writing licks wasn’t a problem; he’d done that in the metal, prog-rock and jam-rock bands he’d been in. Coming up with melodies and lyrics was more of a challenge.
This was the lesson that too few roots songwriters ever learn: The key to writing an enduring song is not the changes; it’s the tune. The more precisely one can define the melody, the more precisely one can define the vocal phrasing, and the more precisely one can define the phrasing, the more effectively the words can fuse sound and meaning.
“My first step in writing an honest song,” he says, “is to abandon any hope of exciting the folks in the seats. I don’t want to write a song thinking, ‘What will people really like?’ I want to write a song about something I know about and feel strongly about; that’s going to be way better than that other song. I’m going to be able to put more into it when I sing it. ‘Away from the Mire,’ for example, was written after me and my brother got into a little spat. If you listen to it and don’t know that story, you can still put your own lens on it.”
Four years ago, he moved to Nashville, a city where songwriting is a way of life. Soon after he arrived, people kept telling him, “Hey, we should get together and write a song.” Strings gave it a try and found he liked it. After having no co-writes on his 2017 solo debut, Turmoil & Tinfoil, his follow-up album, Home, had 10. The co-writers included Ronnie McCoury, Lindsay Lou and Jarrod Walker — the latter the mandolinist in Strings’ quartet. But five songs were co-written with Jon Weisberger, the bluegrass bassist, songwriter and former music journalist.
“Some co-writers I jibe with more than others,” says Strings. “Jon and I work well together because he knows that old-school bluegrass lingo, like, ‘They called me by a number not a name,’ that can always be used in a new way. All the songs I’ve written with Jon, I’ve had an idea and a couple of verses maybe and asked if he could help me finish them. We’d sit there and say, ‘What can we do next?’ and try to come up with cool shit. He’d say, ‘What if we use a C chord there?’ or ‘What if we add a verse here?’”
“Taking Water,” the Apostol-Weisberger collaboration that kicks off Home, for example, begins with ancient-sounding bluegrass language (“cold, cold ashes on the ground … can’t you hear that mournful sound”) and then leaps into the modern world. It describes the plight of Flint, Michigan, where polluted water continues to plague poor neighborhoods. Over a tumbling, uptempo string-band attack, Strings applies the sound of a mountain lament to an urban setting: “Neighborhoods left to decay, people died or walked away.”
As his profile has risen, Strings has been able to play on stage with such heroes as David Grisman, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and Del McCoury as well as such contemporaries as Marcus King, Lindsay Lou, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and The String Cheese Incident. He has often played with Tuttle, but the 2019 Newport Folk Festival was the first — and so far only — time he’s played a rehearsed, full set with his former housemate.
Playing at the Harbor Stage — a white tent wedged between the gray stone wall of Fort Adams and the blue expanse of Narragansett Bay — Tuttle joined Strings’ quartet for some of her originals, some of his and traditional songs such as “Rain and Snow” and “Little Sadie” that they had both grown up on.
They stood side-by-side with nearly identical acoustic guitars strapped on, Tuttle in a sleeveless blue pantsuit, red neck scarf and henna bang, Strings with brown hair rolling over the collar of a dark blue shirt and tattoos peeking out from under the sleeves. Not only did their voices sing duets, but so did their guitars, and soon it seemed as if there were four harmony parts — two verbal and two non-verbal — creating an astonishing whole.
“Molly is a wonderful person first and foremost,” Strings says, “and she’s a motherfucker on the guitar. Her timing is so awesome, and I love her songwriting. When my girlfriend and I moved to Nashville, we had an extra room, so Molly moved in with us for a while. I’d hear her playing the guitar and writing songs in the other room and I’d just be so jealous.
“We both started playing bluegrass with our dads, and eventually, you get to a point where you’re performing so much that people expect you to play your own music. We are on the same path; that’s why we get along so well. People like Marcus (King), Lindsay Lou, Molly and me have gone on the same journey. We all know what we’re going through and what it takes to pull this stuff off.”
Photo Credit: Jesse Faatz