A few weeks back I had the pleasure of catching a young bluegrass musician who goes by the name of Billy Strings at the Pickathon Music Festival just outside Portland, OR. Funny enough, Billy was one of the few acts on the lineup actually doing some real pickin’. What stood out about Billy was the balance he struck between jamming, well-written songs, and a commanding stage presence. There was something about the way he brings rock and roll energy and bravado to bluegrass, much in the way someone like Jeff Austin used to do in Yonder Mountain String Band, that made him magnetic to watch. He shreds and he shreds hard, conveying a sense of energy that goes beyond a bluegrass musician simply standing there picking away.
On September 22nd Billy Strings will release his debut full length album Turmoil & Tinfoil. Though it is no easy task, Billy and his monstrously talented band succeed in capturing a healthy dose of their live energy in the studio. The album is a tour de force of bluegrass virtuoso technique alongside songs that are dark and deep down, not to mention written with thought. Most importantly, whether you are getting into Billy Strings from the perspective of a jam grass fan, Americana lover, or bluegrass traditionalist, I can promise he will impress you.
Recently we caught up with Billy to talk about how he got into bluegrass, developed a style, meeting his bass player at a Phish show, and what we can expect from the new album.
Your style of playing and stage presence feels closer to a rock and roller than a bluegrass player. Did you consciously set out to do this or did it evolve naturally?
It was something that definitely just happened naturally. I cut my teeth on bluegrass and I also love to rock out so I just do both. But there’s not much of a difference, bluegrass rocks too, you know? Music to me has no boundaries or rules, I am in love the musical freedom I have acquired by not pigeon-holing myself into one specific sound.
Do you think bluegrass as a whole can benefit from younger players with different attitudes and influences?
I certainly do. I know that I’ll always incorporate the music of Bill Monroe into my live performances. Same goes for the music of Doc & Merle Watson, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Larry Sparks etc. Now, If any young kids hear banjo music at my show for the first time and then go home to jump on the computer and find “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on YouTube, I consider that a job well done. There are probably young folks who have found out about Earl Scruggs because there is a banjo in Mumford & Sons. Is Mumford & Sons a bluegrass band? Not necessarily, but if they turn on one kid on to acoustic music by having a banjo in the band then that’s good for everyone involved. Also, I think it is natural for music to grow over time. Monroe and them, they’re the trunk of the tree. Then came the longhairs like Old and in the Way, Bluegrass Alliance and them then later on came Newgrass Revival and then even further up the branches are Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, Punch Brothers, and all the little twigs keep growing and the little buds keep buddin’. It’s a beautiful thing!!
Take an exclusive listen to “Dealing Despair”:
You have a super talented band. How did you all connect and did you all have similar backgrounds in bluegrass?
I agree. The guys are absolutely amazing. I met Billy Failing (banjo) when I moved to Nashville and he started coming out with me in March 2016 so he’s been with me the longest. Then I got my friend Drew Matulich to come out and wrangle the mandolin and he’s decided to stick around so far! He’s an excellent player on mandolin, guitar or anything really and he’s hilarious to hang around. I met bass player (Royal Masat) at a Phish concert. It was when Bob Weir came out and played with them. That was a very special show and I don’t think it is just coincidence that we met there!! He is a brilliant musician and a hell of a guy. He’s got a deep groove and he gives the band a backbone. We all love all sorts of music. In the van we listen to stuff like The Wood Brothers, Sun Ra, Doc Watson, Primus, Keith Whitley, Herbie Hancock, Minus the Bear, Cryptopsy, Hot Rize, Derek and Susan…you catch my drift. Just all over the board. It’s an honor and privilege to stand on stage with these dudes every single night.
Your musical style is obviously bluegrass, but it also feels like it has influences of metal and rock. Can you talk about some of your non-bluegrass inspirations and how you decided to incorporate them into your sound?
I started out playing bluegrass when I was about 4. Then, when I was 11 I got a red Strat for Christmas. I got really into Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. By 16 I was playing in a metal band and by 17 I was right back to bluegrass, full circle. I’m still growing as a musician and I decided to try to kill the evil self-critic in my head and try to just let my creative efforts bloom at their own will and in their own direction.
The album (and song) is titled Turmoil & Tinfoil. Is that name a reference to our troubled times?
Turmoil & Tinfoil is about missing someone who is right in front of you. It’s about picking yourself up after you fall. Learn how to fly on broken wings.
Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process – where do you come up with the lyrics and once you have a song written how do you build it into a high octane bluegrass tune?
I usually write the lyrics with the melody already in my head. Then I just keep messing with the song until something works! Some of my songs were basically written in an hour or two and some of them took forever. I can’t force it, whenever it comes it just comes. It’s almost like I didn’t really write any of it and it already exists in the airwaves, all I do is try to be there to catch it when it comes flying by.
It’s been said that you have been known to break multiple strings per song. Do you have any particularly crazy stories of this happening?
One time when I was playing with Don Julin at Hoxeyville Music Festival I broke 3 strings in one set and everybody called it a “hat trick” so everyone threw all their hats on the stage. Good times 🙂 I love the D’addario EXP Phospor Bronze in case you were wondering.
Billy Strings & Whiskey Shivers – The “Whiskey Strings” Tour
Thursday September 14 – Durham, NC – WUNC Back Porch
Friday, September 15th – Asheville, NC – Downtown After Five
Sunday, September 17th – Richmond, VA – The Broadberry
Tuesday, September 19th – Baltimore, MA – The 8×10
Wednesday, September 20th – Washington DC – Black Cat
Thursday September 21st – Philadelphia, PA – Boot & Saddle
Friday, September 22nd – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade
Saturday, September 23rd – Lenox, MA – Lenox Apple Squeeze
Sunday, September 24th – Boston, MA – Great Scott
Monday, September 25th – Burlington, VA – Higher Ground Showcase Lounge
Wednesday, September 27th – Buffalo, MY – Buffalo Iron Works
Thursday, September 28th – Columbus, OH – Woodlands Tavern
Friday, September 29th – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar
Saturday, September 30th – Gatlinburg, TN – Sugarlands Mountain Fest
Sunday, October 1st – Charleston, SC – The Pour House
Tuesday, October 10th – Detroit, MI – Otus Supply
Wednesday, October 11th – Indianapolis, Indiana – The HiFi
Thursday, October 12th – Milwaukee, WI – Back Room at colectivo
Friday, October 13th – Chicago, IL – Shubas
Friday, October 14th – Chicago, IL – Shubas
Sunday, October 15th – St. Paul, MN – Turf
Wednesday, October 25th – Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
Thursday, October 26th – Bend, OR – Volcanic Theatre Pub
Friday, October 27th – Eugene, OR – WOW Hall
Saturday, October 28th – Portland, OR – Revolution Hall
Tuesday, October 31st – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
Wednesday, November 1st – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
Friday, November 3rd – San Diego, CA – Soda Bar
Saturday, November 4th – Phoenix, AZ – Last Exit Live
Saturday, November 5th – Albuquerque, NM – The Dirty Bourbon