Meet Billy Strings
At the time I first contacted Billy Strings, (William Apostol), he was 23 going on about 10,000 years old. Now and then, you meet someone like Billy. Billy has a youthful face. To meet him on the street, he looks like the average kid. When he picks up an instrument, he is a very old soul. He could’ve easily been Django Reinhardt in another life, Paganini, Turlough O’Carolan. Billy is loaded with energy. He’s very quick to recognize and point out his fellow pickers, who have included some of his childhood idols- Del McCoury, Sam Bush, David Grisman, to name a few. Billy will be making his 3rd appearance at the John Hartford Memorial Festival, back by popular demand and the fact that we all love Billy Strings.
Friends, I have been around some great pickers in my lifetime. I’ve attended the Walnut Valley Festival, home of 8 worldwide recognized instrument championships including the National Flatpicking Championships, for over 30 years. (Billy will be performing here in September for the first time). I’ve seen little kids there, eating up what I struggle all year to pull off on a guitar picked fiddle tune. The best pickers in the world come to compete. I've not heard anyone lately that would beat Billy Strings, but, this is not what this is about.
Billy Strings is not about competition. Billy Strings is a natural, self taught, plays by ear, out of this world. Sometimes I feel like the Mother Ship dropped off folks like Chris Thiele, Sarah Watkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and Billy; these folks who have the uncanny ability to cruise up and down the finger boards of their instruments seemingly without effort. Billy Strings, born William Apostol in Lansing, MI, grew up in Ionia, MI and currently lives in Nashville, TN. His father, Terry Barber, and Doc Watson are his main influences. Billy grew up in a strong musical atmosphere. The following interview will give you some insight about Billy. I will tell you, Billy’s character, personality and ability are timeless. Billy is an old soul. We are very fortunate to have him perform at JHMF, and the music world is very fortunate that Billy has found the road “out there”, and we hope he sticks around. It will be a pretty fascinating journey following the career and music of Billy Strings. He is way beyond demand these days.
Billy is much more than a great picker, he’s a deep, thoughtful songwriter too. “I have been performing since I could carry a tune. Probably about 8 years old. I have been playing since I was born. I have no formal training at all, I have learned everything by ear. When I was younger, growing up, I heard my father playing Doc Watson’s repertoire. So my main influences are my father (Terry Barber) and Doc Watson.”
About songwriting: “The songs come to me in many different ways, sometimes I write a lyric and then make up some music for it, and sometimes I write music and I try to envision what that tune makes me feel like, then I try to write lyrics around that particular emotion. I can not read a lick of music. The biggest thrill for me is playing with my heroes. I have shared the stage with the likes of David Grisman, Sam Bush, Del McCoury etc. I grew up listening to these guys on records. Now they are friends of mine. Any time I get to hear guys like David Grisman, Sam Bush, Del Mccoury etc. it is the truth. those guys are the masters of this music. It is a thrill to listen to them perform every single time. They are simply the best.”
So there are all kinds of jokes about the egos of flatpickers. Billy could probably win the National Flatpicking Contest.
I asked him if he enters these contests, and why he performs. “No, I do not enter contests because I am not that good. I perform because it is what I was born to do.” This reply is an example of Billy’s humbleness, along with an understanding that he is gifted and has direction.
What goes through your mind when you’re picking a tune on stage? “Everything from ‘Holy smokes this is awesome’ to ‘mmmm oatmeal cookies sound good”
What do you do to prepare for a gig? “I try to write down what songs I am going to play and run them in my head to see if the set will be smooth. I also try to get prepared mentally. Sometimes I get nervous and I just try and get over that.” Billy has recorded 2 albums with mandolin master Don Julin and has written for his own solo debut album. Billy will has an EP and a highly acclaimed CD, "Turmoil and Tinfoil." To sum it up, Billy has direction, and it is following his heart which is his music. His unselfish personality, his uncanny ability, and his driving energy will set the tone for the future of Bluegrass. We are in good hands! “I see myself out there working. Playing at festivals and theaters around the country.” He told me this three years ago. He is doing just that. We are beyond tickled to have Billy Strings coming back to the Hartford Stage at the 8th Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival. www.billystrings.com