Billy Strings Followed His Dream to Bluegrass Stardom

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association)

It’s safe to say that Billy Strings is an ambassador for bluegrass. A now-iconic video of him playing “Dust in a Baggie” introduced him to countless fans. Then, his Grammy-winning album Home captured an even wider audience. Captivated by his music, many of those fans started digging deeper into the genre. There, they found great talents like Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe, and countless other legendary American musicians.

 All of this is a result of Strings working hard to make his dreams come true. Yesterday, ahead of his performance at the Grammy Awards, Strings shared a photo of a drawing he did in elementary school. In the picture, Billy Strings drew a figure playing a guitar and at the bottom of the page it says “When I grow up I want to be a bluegrass player.” All these years later, Billy is living the dream to its fullest.

He posted the picture without a caption. However, the post and its timing spoke volumes.

Billy Strings Was Raised on Bluegrass

Billy Strings’ dad, Terry Barber is an accomplished bluegrass musician in his own right. He planted the seeds of that dream early in Billy’s life. Barber started teaching his son how to play guitar when he was very young. In a 2021 interview with WBUR, Strings said, “By the time I was 4 years old, I had a guitar and he taught me some chords. My dad would play all the fancy licks and I just played the rhythm.”

Billy Strings cut his teeth on bluegrass and old-time music. In fact, one of the most formative moments of his musical life came while playing Doc Watson’s “Beaumont Rag” with his dad in the back bedroom of their trailer. The young guitarist flubbed the chords several times. Then, frustrated, he told his dad to just play the melody and let him listen. After getting the melody in his head, little Billy was able to nail his part on the next go-round.

Strings said, “[Dad] was so proud, he just leaned over and squeezed my little hand. And that moment has pushed me to this day. I still think about that. Like the other day when we won the Grammy [for the 2019 album Home], who did I call? I called my dad right away. Look, Dad, you taught me well.”

Making a Name for Himself

Before Billy Strings was one of the hottest names in bluegrass, he was William Apostol. His Aunt Mondi gave him the nickname “Little Billy Strings,” as a kid because he was such a talented musician. Strings’ aunt passed away when he was a teenager. At that time, he was just starting to do open mic nights in local clubs. About how his childhood nickname became his professional moniker, he said, “When I went up to the chalkboard to write my name up there, I wrote Billy Strings in her honor.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Billy Strings: Living the Bluegrass Dream

Billy Strings has followed his dream a long way from the bedroom of that trailer house in Michigan. Today, he has three studio albums, two collaboration records with mandolinist Don Julin, and a pair of EPs. His album Home won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2021. Additionally, Strings has taken home several awards, including Entertainer of the Year and Guitar Player of the Year, from the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Maybe more importantly, though, Billy Strings is one of a handful of artists at the forefront of the resurgence of bluegrass and roots music. So, I guess you could say that his dream came true and then some.