Music

Billy Strings

Probably not a robot

Thursday, June 20, 2013

When I was 20 years old, I was exploring my newfound college freedom, weighing the benefits of single life vs. my then-contentious relationship with my then-boyfriend, running up too much credit card debt (sorry, future self), attending just enough classes to make my parents happy yet few enough to make my professors perpetually exasperated and generally having a pretty good time.

A few things I was not doing when I was 20 years old? I was not wowing audiences with my nigh-unbelievable flatpicking prowess. I was not wowing seasoned musicians with my undeniable talent with regard to pretty much any stringed instrument. I was not introducing people to songs long forgotten while writing my own original songs to add to the canon. I certainly was not touring the country, trying to make my living on these formidable skills.

But, then again, I’m not Billy Strings.

With a name like Billy Strings, you can sort of figure on what you’ll be getting. Or so you might think. But no amount of dropped hints or outright facts can prepare you for the reality that is Strings.

First of all, as you might have guessed, “Billy Strings” is not the name this bluegrass musician was born with. He’s actually William Apostol, named after his grandfather with whom he shares a birthday. The Strings nickname came via an aunt when he was still a child—a child with an unholy talent and the drive to match.

I say “unholy” because I’m not the first person who has encountered Strings’ music and wondered if he made some sort of deal with the devil in order to be so good so young. He can make seemingly any stringed bluegrass instrument—guitar, banjo, mandolin—come alive, picking with such speed and precision it seems to defy possibility. It does Strings a vast injustice to say he’s amazing “for his age.” Strings is amazing. Period. Full stop. No qualifiers or modifiers.

It almost sounds as if Strings was born with a guitar in his hand.

He wasn’t, of course, but he was born into a musical family in Ionia County, Mich. His father is a musician and Strings’ obvious early musical proclivities were indulged while he was still a toddler. He was gifted a plastic guitar at the age of three, which was replaced with a $25 guitar from an antique store that he “had to have.” It wasn’t long before he was accompanying his father, and, at the ripe old age of six, Strings got a better guitar and started joining the pickin’ parties that would happen at his uncle’s campground.

Born into a musical family and with clear talent that was encouraged from an early age, it would seem Strings has had a charmed existence. And in some ways, he has. He went from the campground to bluegrass festivals, receiving acclaim everywhere he went, from fans and experienced musicians alike.

But Ionia is a small, rural place, hardly a springboard to a fruitful career as a musician. As well, like many less-than-idyllic small towns, Ionia has its fair share of bored teens and readily available drugs. So Strings left Ionia, in favor of parts north, where he’s hit the larger local music scene there like a proverbial ton of bricks. It seems all that small-town ability does indeed translate to bigger audiences, who watch this musician, barely out of his teens, with mouths agape.

Like other bluegrass musicians, Strings’ onstage persona is dressed up and buttoned down. Despite the speed of his play and its exacting nature, he appears to exert surprisingly little effort, while bringing to bear still-burgeoning charisma. With his slow drawl and seemingly amiable nature, put together, it’s all enough to make a person wonder if Strings is, in fact, made of robot parts.

But underneath that shirt and tie is a body covered in colorful tattoos, speaking to Strings’ ethos as a bluegrass player who is more than a little punk rock at heart. His original songs, while traditional in sound and structure, speak to modern times and problems he’s paid witness to—one of his more popular songs is called “Dust in a Baggy” and is about a friend serving time for methamphetamine possession.

These days, Strings is touring with mandolin player Don Julin, who, with his also formidable stringed skills (one that has come about through a career slightly longer than Strings’) makes for a perfect match with his decades-younger counterpart. They play songs both traditional and original, and Julin is just enough of a mandolin master to divert attention from Strings’ crazy capability. Watching them together brings to mind an accolade typically not applied to bluegrass musicians: these dudes totally shred.

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