Billy Strings Calls It How It Is

Billy Strings is home at his East Nashville apartment writing as many songs as he can before heading out on his next two-month tour.

Oct. 26 | Hangtown Music Festival | Placerville

“You might write 100 of them before you write one good one,” says the 26-year-old born William Apostol. “It’s almost like fishing. Some days I sit down to write and I can’t catch anything. Some days there’s stuff biting and I’m digging for it. The more you do it, the easier it gets. As far as the original music, I’m trying to get out of my own way and let the music move me and not conform and constrict the natural flow of energy.”

A highlight of his 2017 debut LP, “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” was the extended barnburner, “Meet Me at the Creek,” which references Apostol’s father and time spent picking by Stony Creek at the Barkus Park Campground in Ionia, Mich.

“I grew up right on that river bank,” he says. “All day we’d go fishing, running around, playing with the other kids. Then in the evening, we’d sit there and pick on the banks of the river, singing lonesome tunes until the sun came up. It was an epic childhood.”

Apostol thinks of his father as the melodramatic cornerstone of a rowdy, yet loving group of friends and family who shared life and music in the campground.

“He was always the life of the party. Everyone was standing around, smoking, drinking and playing along and my dad is the center of the circle bringing everyone so much joy. I wanted to be like that,” he says.

Father bought Apostol his first guitar when he was 4 years old. He taught him the chords to simple old-time tunes such as “Salt Creek,” “Beaumont Rag,” “Long Journey Home,” “Summertime Blues” and many others by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe.

“When I was little, I just played rhythm guitar,” says Apostol. “I was his little sidekick. They’d be carrying on and I was just the little shit hanging around.”

Nowadays, Billy Strings is the hottest flatpicker in the land with a killer string band that is at the top of everyone’s 2019 bluegrass festival wish list.

“It’s even better than I imagined,” he says of life as a professional musician. “If you imagine it being this fancy, or maybe rugged lifestyle, it’s not quite like that. It’s your life and it’s real. But there have been moments I’ve ended up on stage with people I’ve looked up to my entire life.”

Apostol recalls still living in Ionia only a couple of years ago where he was sometimes poor.

“It’s not money that makes you rich,” he says. “It’s life, experience and friendship. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth a shit. People have explained to me how I have helped them through a song. That’s better than any paycheck I’ve ever received. Whenever somebody says that, I’m blown away thinking, ‘That’s why I do this.’”

While playing nearly 200 shows a year, Apostol says traveling fans have become like family members on tour.

“We are holding each other out there,” he says. “When something happens, when somebody passes away, we feel it. Everyone’s heart resonates together within that community. To be a part of that love, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s not about the gimmicks and radio and records, it’s about emotions and spirituality.”

Apostol sees bluegrass heading in a positive direction as the old-school traditional festivals thin out for a younger generation that’s really into new-grass groups such as Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band, Del McCoury and Old & In The Way.

“These are folks who got to Earl Scruggs through Jerry Garcia,” he says. “I think it’s cool that bands like us are accepted. We can all play a bluegrass like a mother****er and pick the shit out of it, but we could also play Prince or a Mötley Crüe song.”

Apostol has more recently been encouraging younger fans to join the International Bluegrass Music Association to combat some of the entrenched racist and homophobic attitudes still embedded within the traditional artform.

“I’d rather be in a picking circle with an awesome gay dude who plays the banjo, that’s not an asshole,” he says. “I don’t care who you are and what you worship; hate ain’t cool. Bluegrass has roots in the white South, but honestly, I’m over that shit. It’s 2018. Seriously, it’s ridiculous.” | hangtownfestival.com