If West Michigan native and rising Nashville prodigy Billy Strings is thankful for only one thing this Thanksgiving, it’s that he’ll finally get to spend at least one night back home.
Born William Apostol in Muir, about 40 miles east of Grand Rapids, Strings discovered his love for music and his raw natural talent at just four years old when his father — amateur bluegrass picker Terry Barber — put Strings’ first six-string in his hands.
Earning his nickname from his aunt when he quickly developed a knack for several traditional bluegrass instruments, he studied the legends of the genre while keeping a keen eye on the changing world around him.
Growing up in Ionia, he spent time playing in metal bands during his school days. The scene caught up with him and many of his friends, plunging him into the dark world of drugs and desperation, and leading him to drop out of high school twice before graduating.
So he returned to his roots. He relocated to Traverse City and teamed up with his bluegrass mentor Don Julin, and together they recorded two collaborative LPs.
The fire to perform continued to burn within him, so he took his head-banging acoustic style to Nashville a little over two years ago. About a year later, he released his 2017 debut LP, Turmoil & Tinfoil, to tremendous critical acclaim. It’s been nonstop touring ever since.
He and his band logged more than 200 shows last year and are on pace to pass 200 gigs again this year. So for him to slow down for a holiday in his hometown is a real gift.
“Part of my lifestyle is that I’m always on the move,” Strings said of his life as a touring musician. “If I do see somebody, it’s only for a few minutes and then I’m back in the van. So it’s good to get back home and spend a little time and see some of my friends who I grew up with around there. Now that we’ve got two nights, I know I’m staying for at least one night.”
Strings packed The Intersection for a single show last year hot on the heels of his album release, and he’s excited to return ahead of recording sessions for his upcoming follow-up, which he’s set to record back in Nashville in January.
“I would like to play Michigan a lot more,” Strings said. “Those folks up there, the people that live up there and used to come out and see me play at the coffee house or downstairs at the bookstore, those are the people that shoved me off. I got in this little rickety boat and they shoved me off to sea, and said, ‘Go Billy! You can do it!’”
Honored to represent the Michigan roots music community on the national scene, Strings runs into West Michigan road warriors and close friends Greensky Bluegrass all the time. In fact, he was just announced as an opener for their winter 2019 tour.
When he’s in Nashville, his house is across the street from fellow Michigan music transplant Lindsay Lou. Recently, the two collaborated together, and when he’s not on the road, Strings has been co-writing with many other musicians in Nashville. Besides his top-shelf backing band — made up of banjo player Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat and mandolin player Jarrod Walker — he’s been working with his friend and former Jewel co-songwriter Steve Poltz.
Showcasing the speed and skill of his musicianship, Strings’ songs soar into the psychedelic, drawing comparisons to everyone from The Dead to Sturgill Simpson. They also don’t shy away from the tough times he’s seen. Losing friends at a young age to drug addiction, he hopes to continue to channel those troubled times into music that can help others.
“(I’m grateful) that I never got wrapped up in that stuff too bad, and I can use it as inspiration for art,” he said. “This opioid crisis is still very much tearing families apart in America and in Michigan. I’ve lost a couple friends this year to heroin. … I have a really happy life, and I sometimes feel like I don’t deserve that.”
But Strings isn’t taking his opportunities for granted. Fiercely independent, he’s passed on record label interest thus far in his career. He’s had to hustle as he’s built his team around him. Staying true to himself remains his top priority, while he matures as a songwriter in today’s tumultuous political climate.
“I get messages from good friends of mine who say, ‘You know, successful musicians don’t talk about politics in their music,’” Strings said of addressing politics in his songs. “And I just start listing people off, like Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. You want to talk about Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne. I can name off a hundred amazing artists and that’s all they did was talk about the shit that was happening in our country, and I think it’s complete bullshit for somebody to say, ‘shut up and just play music and don’t talk about that stuff,’ because music, that’s what it’s for. That’s what music is for.”
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