When the accomplished guitarist, Billy Strings (born William Apostol), thinks about music, he’s often transported to the past. He remembers growing up with songs all around his childhood house and getting his first guitar at four-years-old. He remembers learning chords and playing music with his father at seven-years-old and he remembers seeing his dad liven up a party by fingerpicking local favorites. These are the fondest moments of Strings’ life, he says. But just because Strings can recall such joyous occasions doesn’t mean there haven’t been many rough ones between them. He remembers these, too, often writing about the heft of life in his music. Strings, whose latest record, Home, was recently nominated for a Grammy, carries his past to every gig he plays. Fans can continue to bear witness to his emotive, powerful performances now through Christmas as the Nashville-based musician broadcasts his original sets via his YouTube page to benefit Tennessee food banks and shelters.
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“Back when I was a little kid, playing with my dad,” Strings says. “Those were the best days of my life. Everything was good back then. I didn’t have a care in the world. All I wanted to do was learn how to play guitar because my dad was such a badass. We’d be at a party and everybody would be drinking and smoking and I’m just there sitting on a cooler, trying to learn how to pick these tunes that they’re all jamming to.”
As he got older, Strings would accompany his father, strumming rhythm. He didn’t focus on singing or playing lead. He just learned and supported. In school, Strings says, he wasn’t the best student. He had a hard time sticking to any subject that didn’t involve a six-string. But he dove more into music. His parents had exposed him to greats like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. He began playing in metal bands with his peers. He turned to his guitar in times of duress, anxiety and stress. It was often his therapy and medication. But whenever he played, it was special. And sitting there playing one night, Strings got a gift he’ll always cherish from his Aunt Mondi: his nickname.
“I was just sitting there on the cooler,” he says, “trying to play all the bluegrass songs and, shit, Mondi, who was probably high, said, ‘Look at little Billy Strings!’”
Aunt Mondi was thick and thieves with Strings’ mother. She was like a mother to him, herself. Until then, everyone had called him “Boomer.” But after that, people began to know him by a different name. “Billy Strings” simply stuck. But later in his life, when Aunt Mondi was on her deathbed, dying of cancer, Strings went to go visit her. Mondi, who was Native American, continued her profound impact on Strings, even in her last days. Strings and his father visited her and played music for her one last time. It inspired her to get up out of bed, drink a beer and smoke a joint.
“Me and my dad got our guitars out,” Strings says. “She started dancing and singing along. It was fucking powerful and I love her and I miss her.”
After Mondi passed, Strings began to play at open mic nights. On his first ever occasion, he signed up on the chalkboard as “Billy Strings” to honor his late aunty. Later, at one of his first-ever solo gigs at a brewery, he was billed as Billy Strings again and he decided to keep it as his full-time professional name. He even got business cards made with his phone number and email address printed on them. It was official. But the name never would have started – or since traveled around the world – if it wasn’t for Mondi.
“I remember nights as a little-ass kid,” Strings says. “And Mondi would make sure me and my brothers were okay, that everybody partying wouldn’t bother us. She made sure we were tucked in, that us kids were taken care of even though we were at a party with a bunch of adults.”
To ensure a strong future, one often needs to begin from a solid foundation. But what that foundation looks like can vary. For Strings, it was a combination of family gatherings. These were the good old days. Since then, though, he has experienced great loss and hardship. Strings, who grew up in small Muir, Michigan and later lived in Traverse City, has seen friends die from opiates, both illicit and prescribed. But whenever it got hard, he could dig into his guitar. In this way, it’s been his best and most reliable friend. While listeners might think god touched him as a player, Strings has worked diligently for decades.
“I’ve never been amazed at my fingers,” he says, laughing. “My fingers have pissed me off since the beginning of time. It’s taken me pretty much twenty-give-years or some shit to get to where I’m at. I wish I could have practiced more. I’m still learning, trying to get my technique down and play with an economy of motion. It’s hard not to tense up when you’re trying to play so fast. You have to play hard and fast but not tense. You have to be loose about it and think loosely.”
These days, Strings collaborates with some of the world’s best players, including banjo player, Béla Fleck, and mandolin player, David Grisman. At times, Strings says, he has to battle a feeling of “imposter syndrome” around these “samurai” masters. But beyond his instrument, it took Strings some time to build up his confidence as a singer, too. At first, before his voice properly changed, he often couldn’t find the right octave to stay in. One day, though, he decided to just sing as best he can and to do it loudly.
“We were sitting around a campfire,” Strings says. “And one of my buddies says, ‘Dude, your guitar is louder than your voice. I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ So I said, ‘Alright, fuck it. It’s a big world, I got to sing loud and proud.’”
Strings says that, over the years, he has learned from some of the darker times in his life. In his teens, he couch surfed and involved himself early in drinking and drugs. Those experiences, now that they’re largely in the past, have helped make him a stronger person, he says. But even now, Strings says, he has trouble navigating the world. It can be hard for him today to accept the success he’s found in music. He’s often credited as one of the best guitarists in the world (and rightly so) but that doesn’t make the adulation easy to take or the spoils that come with it feel natural. Often, Strings looks to the songs he writes and plays for neat footing. He even takes lessons from what he writes. For example, his song, “Away from the Mire,” which is about letting go of loss, opened his eyes during one performance in particular. He realized he was the one who needed to learn its lesson.
“I was in the middle of the song, in front of a big crowed,” Strings says, “when I realized I was saying all this to myself. Like, Holy shit, you’re the one that needs to let go, bro!”
But while Strings lives with a great deal of joy and sorrow in any given moment, it’s the music that can act like a time machine or a source of new surroundings for the burgeoning artist. Music, as it always has been for him, is both a return and a place of rejuvenation. And as his latest record would suggest, music is his home, too, again and again.
“It brings me back to childhood,” Strings says. “Before I ever had any weight on my shoulders or a care in the world. Sometimes it’s a portal back to when everything was good and we had sunshine and food in the cupboards.”