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.

More Music...
Hovander Homestead Bluegrass Festival
Party in the park

Several years ago, after undergoing a series of personal setbacks, I decided it was time to take my show on the road. Generally speaking, I’m a firm believer that wherever you go, there you are. But in this case, a change in geography seemed in order.

So, I moved to Ferndale.

While not…

more »
Wild Buffalo
From Minus the Bear to Macklemore

If you happened to wander past the Wild Buffalo last weekend, chances are pretty good you found that the normally lively music venue had gone dark, save for a private event Sunday night. This darkness probably confused you, as it is not the norm for the Buff, a place where a blank space in…

more »
Northwest Washington Fair
An affair to remember

By now it is no secret that I love the Northwest Washington Fair above almost all things in my life. Perhaps that sounds like hyperbole, the kind of exaggerated statement a person makes when they’re trying to grab your attention.

But with me, it’s stone cold truth.

It’s also not…

more »
Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

A Little Night Music

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Discover Birch Bay Days

10:00am|Birch Bay Drive

A Swinging Weekend

12:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Chuckanut Classic

6:30am|Boundary Bay Brewery

Veterans Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Run to Fight Blindness

9:00am|Cascadia Eye

Marsh Mucking

10:00am|Tennant Lake Interpretive Center

Anacortes Open Streets

11:00am|Commercial Avenue

International Concert Series Finale

2:00pm|Peace Arch Provincial Park

Cirque Literary Journal Reading

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Chuckanut Writers Info Session

4:00pm|Village Books,

Sunday Night Fusion

7:00pm|Presence Studio

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Andrew Subin
Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

We Grow Market

3:00pm|Northwest Youth Services

Music Enrichment Project Meet and Greet

4:00pm|Piper Music

Open Mic

7:00pm|Village Books

Get Out More Tour

7:30pm|Backcountry Essentials


8:00pm|Bellingham Public Library


9:30pm|Green Frog

Andrew Subin Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Hiking Basics


Final History Sunset Cruise

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

Final BIFT

6:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Amnesty International Meeting

7:00pm|Community Food Co-op

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

see our complete calendar »

5 Point Film Festival Andrew Subin Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Bellingham Farmer’s Market Artifacts Wine Bar Northwood Steak and Crab Village Books Swinomish 2016