Every once in a while, there comes a young musician on the scene who even the living legends realize is special. That’s the case with Billy Strings. Still in his twenties, Billy came out of nowhere for a lot of bluegrass fans by showing up on the IBMA Award nominations in 2018 for Guitar Player Of The Year and Emerging Artist Of The Year. Then, in 2019, he won both IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year and New Artist Of The Year honor.
For those who pay attention to the younger generations that are coming up in the bluegrass world, Billy has been on the radar for quite some time. He’s a musician that was given deep knowledge of the music of the first generation of bluegrass by his father, a great picker who kept a day job. Billy, being a musician who also appreciates the newgrass generation, has an adventurous streak in him. Still, as far out on the limb as he gets at times, few have a greater love for Doc Watson, Mac Wiseman, and Bill Monroe than this new spark in the roots music world.
Billy is young man who was aware of his surroundings and realizes he could have gone down many a wrong road in his homebase of southwestern Michigan, located between Grand Rapids and Flint where the opioid epidemic hit hard. “I come from a town called Ionia, Michigan,” he said. His latest album is simply called Home. His previous album was Turmoil And Tinfoil, which featured the exploratory side to his music, proving that he could go out on any limb. On Home, however, Strings and his band bring the sound back to a more acoustic bluegrass groove, filled with original songs and Billy’s distinctive vocals. On the album, there’s plenty of room for his impressive guitar virtuosity, as the improvisation flows often. His band also features Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin).
“I think I learned a lot from my dad,” says Strings. “When he sings, he really puts the emotion into it. He really embodies the song. I grew up learning from him and listening to him play, yet he has never been a professional musician. But, he’s definitely at a professional level with his playing. When he sings a song, whether it’s some old Mac Wiseman tune or Doc Watson or something like that, he really puts in the flavor of the artist. He learned that from playing all of those old records and playing along with them. When you hear him do a Mac Wiseman tune, he really almost sounds just like Mac Wiseman. It is the same thing when he sings a Doc Watson tune. He sounds like Doc. So, while growing up and having my dad as my hero and the guy I learned everything from; I think I got the lucky hand there.” Strings has carried that approach into his current role as a band leader. “When we’re playing live, I try and do the same thing. It really feels good to reach deep down and try and serve the emotional content of the song.”
One impressive original cut from the new album Home is called “Must Be Seven,” a musically-inventive song about leaving a negative life behind. “To me, ‘Must Be Seven’ is like a Midwestern story about getting away from all of the B.S., about two people that decide to get away from all of the darkness. I think a lot of it comes from growing up in a small town in the Midwest where there’s everything from substance abuse to poverty.”
By the second half of 2019, Billy’s tour page showed over 20 sold-out shows throughout the country. There’s something unique happening with this artist right now. Simply put: Billy Strings has caught fire and is sparking a new generation of bluegrass musicians and fans.
A lot of what mesmerizes music lovers about him is his incredible ability to play the guitar and improvise. Because improvisation seems to flow out of him freely, festivals like DelFest, RoosterWalk, and Grey Fox have all brought him back once they realized his talent. Grey Fox has hired him to be the artist-in-residence two years in a row, and many acts on the bill are happy to bring him out during their shows. It’s that kind of skill-driven excitement that brings folks to his stand-alone shows as well.
“We were really fortunate in 2019 to experience all of the support we got from the fans, friends, and folks who all came out to see us,” he said. “It does blow my mind, and I feel very lucky to get everyone’s support. I really put my heart into this thing and it’s so good to have people come out and see us like this, with sold-out shows. It’s really unbelievable and I’m very grateful.
“I grew up jamming at bluegrass festivals and playing with a lot of different people around the campfires. I think one of the beautiful things about bluegrass music is you can get together with five people you’ve never met and yet we know a lot of the same tunes, so you can kind of just hop in there. Now, when I’m playing original music written by other artists, I just sort of tap into it by using the same frame of mind. I just try and listen. To me, it’s about having big ears. I try to listen and support the song and not step on people’s toes, but also not be afraid to get in there and dig in as well.”
While Strings has already played with an impressive run of legends and topnotch players and is confident in his abilities, there is still a starstruck side to him that deeply respects who he’s jamming with on any given occasion.
“Another cool thing about bluegrass music is that a lot of the stars are accessible to the fans. You can go and meet Jerry Douglas and shake his hand and say hello and he’s just like a normal dude. He doesn’t act like some big star. He’s a humble guy and a great musician—and that’s all. Like Doc Watson, he’s just one of the people. One of the most beautiful things about bluegrass is the community. The first time I saw Larry Sparks, I went right up to him and shook his hand and he was really nice.”
Shaking hands with great artists is one thing. Being a talent that turns the heads of those top musicians when they jam with you is rare, and that’s what makes Strings an extraordinary addition to the roots music scene now. I decided to put the word out to legendary bluegrass artists, asking them for comments on Billy. The acclaimed musicians who contributed to this profile include Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Vince Herman, Bryan Sutton and IBMA Hall Of Famer Del McCoury. Following is what the genre’s best musicians are saying about this kid from Michigan.
Sam Bush (four-time IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year): “Billy Strings is the real deal. He is really serious about progressing as a musician and every time I hear him, he’s a better player. I’m happy for Billy and that things are going well for him. We just played together out in Colorado and I love the guy.”
Jerry Douglas (ten-time IBMA Resophonic Guitar Player Of The Year): “When Bryan Sutton said to me, ‘Here’s the future of bluegrass—Billy Strings,’ I took notice. You’re always hearing that when the Old Guard is gone, bluegrass will be gone, too. But, I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. For all practical purposes, the Old Guard is gone. Sure Del McCoury is still going strong, but Del is in my mind the second generation, so no worries there, and his sons are also carving out a mighty monument themselves. So, here comes Billy Strings—a fresh, Doc Watson-influenced, young, swashbuckling guitar player who sings and writes most of his own material from a personal view. From what he’s told me, he came to a fork in the road not only as a musician, but especially as a person. He could either go down the road many of his friends took and never return, or straighten up, live, and make something of himself. He chose the latter, and we are all the better for it.”
Douglas makes a great point when it comes to Billy’s guitar playing. It’s uplifting to see a six-string gunslinger not compared to Tony Rice. “Billy is not a Tony Rice clone,” Douglas continued. “That’s refreshing. He seems to lean on and be inspired by a lot of the same people that the Tony Rice generation came out of, but he also has that Gen-X outlook. You can’t make that up. He’s looking for something elusive and new, which I also think is the shining path.”
Strings is also being invited into the recording studio as a guest musician these days as well. “Funny thing, when we were recently struggling to record a new Bela Fleck album, Billy was like a bumble bee flying all over his guitar,” says Douglas. “He’s half Doc Watson, half Yngwie Malmsteen and a quarter Larry Carlton. It works. He’s captivating in that he takes you on the 16- to 32-bar journey that he is describing to you musically, but he’s funny at the same time. He’s a good storyteller. He doesn’t unveil the payoff until the hand-off of the baton to the next poet. It’s going to be interesting to watch where he goes with this. He doesn’t have drums in his band like a lot of the acts on the same marquees do, and the guys in his group are of the same mind and can go right out on the limb with him. Again, that’s refreshing. I’ll be watching his career and enjoying myself in the process. There’s something very innocent about Billy that is endearing, and I think he’s going to have a great future. He chose the right path.”
Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon): “Billy Strings brings the excitement of a skateboarding, heavy-metal player to his deep understanding of bluegrass music’s past, and he’s going to lead us all forward from here.”
Bryan Sutton (ten-time IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year): “The bottom line is I’m impressed with everything Billy does. From day one, he’s always struck me as a guitar player who has studied the tradition, yet he continues to innovate. He’s convincing, whether he’s playing an older song by Doc Watson or Mac Wiseman or one of his modern originals. One of the main things I love about playing with Billy is that it’s not about trying to outdo the other player or be impressive with the guitar, but just to enjoy the songs and the energy of playing those songs.”
Del McCoury (IBMA Hall Of Famer): “I’ve seen some musicians come and go over the years. I’ve been doing shows with Dawg (David Grisman) for three or four years now and we’ve played a lot at the various city wineries venues. We played the one in Chicago and the booking agent said, ‘We have a mandolin and guitar act that will be opening up for you.’ It was Billy and his music buddy at the time. That’s when David and I both got to meet Billy Strings. As for Billy, for a young guy, he’s like an old guy in a young guy’s skin. He can entertain people. He’s got that knack, and I could see that in him. He just naturally entertains people, which is lacking in a lot of bands and musicians these days.”
Even though Strings had just met these two legends, he took a chance and asked Grisman and McCoury if they would sing a song with him during that show. McCoury recalled, “He said, ‘Would you guys sing one with me?’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I’ll sing one with you.’ He said, ‘Let’s do that old Stanley Brothers song about Virginia.’ I did the high baritone with him, and he could sing high as well. We did a trio on that one, and that’s how we met him. It was bold of him to ask us, in a way, but he’s been playing music for a long time. He learned to play from his dad. Then, we played another show with him in Detroit and his dad came to the show. We got him in backstage, and they played twin guitars together and, man, I could see where he learned to play his guitar. His dad is a good guitar player. Billy also likes Mac Wiseman and when we get together, we’ll sing ‘Sweetheart Can’t You Hear Me Calling’ all the time. We do it in the same key of G that Monroe and Wiseman recorded it in, and Billy can hit those high notes on that lead. He’ll put it right up there for you. And, I like a good tenor singer who can hit that lead really hard and put those notes right up there where you can harmonize with it.”
McCoury has seen all sides of the business over the decades of his career. So, as for Billy’s quick success, McCoury views it as being in the right hands. “Billy has everything rolled up in one. I think he’s a good manager. I think he can manage himself well. I know a lot of musicians, and the first dollar they get, they spend that dollar. They don’t ever keep a dollar. For the longest time, Billy told us, ‘I’m not going to get a bus or spend the money to lease or buy a bus. I’m going to travel in a van just as long as I can because I want to save my money.’ He has a good head on his shoulders. He sets an example for all of the musicians his age. And, he’s bringing in fans to his shows from other kinds of music beside bluegrass, so that’s a good thing.”
When Billy was told about the tributes from the artists above, he was truly touched and appreciative. “All of those guys are my heroes. I grew up listening to all of these guys with my dad. Dad would sit me down and say, ‘Okay son, this is David Grisman. You need to know this guy.’ So, it really feels full circle to be able to jam with those guys. It just blows my mind to do it. It’s unbelievable the first time, and it’s unbelievable every single next time. Singing with Del McCoury is like stepping back in time. Those guys make me feel at home and make me feel invited, so there’s nothing nerve-wracking about it. This has been an amazing journey that I’ve been on because those artists were totally untouchable to me. I never thought I’d meet and play with Del McCoury or Sam Bush, let alone become friends with them.”