Who is Billy Strings? The Gateway to Bluegrass Addiction

by Clayton Edwards

I could say that Billy Strings is an award-winning bluegrass guitarist and vocalist from Michigan and leave it at that. However, that only scratches the surface. More than a master of traditional bluegrass, Strings pushes the limits of what a string band can do. Shades of progressive ‘grass, heavy metal, psychedelic rock, and unbridled musical creativity work their way into his playing as well as his songwriting.

Billy Strings made his recording debut in 2013 with Rock of Ages, a collaboration with mandolinist Don Julin. The next year, Strings and Julin teamed up once again for Fiddle Tune X. After that, Strings struck out on his own. He gathered fellow musicians Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin) to create one of the tightest bluegrass jam bands you’ll ever hear.

In 2017, Billy Strings released his debut full-length album Turmoil and Tinfoil. Two years later, he unveiled his Grammy-winning record Home. Last year, Strings released Renewal, his most ambitious and eclectic album to date. Additionally, Billy has dropped two EPs and has done a laundry list of collaborations. So, if you’re just finding his music, there’s plenty to keep you busy for a while.

If you want to get a taste of Strings’ music, check out our playlist Billy Strings: The Gateway to Bluegrass Addiction. While you’re at it, be sure to follow Outsider on Spotify for all the best music from our favorite artists.  

Billy Strings: The Early Days

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Billy Strings’ massive talent and repertoire of old-time music. Born William Apostol, he grew up in rural central Michigan. His dad, Terry Barber, is an incredibly talented bluegrass musician. Barber passed his love of music and prowess on the guitar down to his boy.

By the time he was four years old, Apostol was learning to play guitar. He cut his teeth playing rhythm while Barber handled the leads. Before long, Strings found himself holding his own with musicians more than four decades his senior.

Billy Strings and Terry Barber “On the Southbound”

However, he wanted to make music with people his age. At the same time, Apostol discovered the music of Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and other early rock and metal greats. As a result, he joined a handful of local metal bands. Currently, you can hear traces of those influences in his playing. However, you’re more likely to see the metal influence in his stage presence and live performance style. In a 2019 interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “I grew up playing bluegrass with my dad. That’s how I cut my teeth when I was a little kid, and how I learned to play music. But I learned how to perform when I was in a metal band, and that energy stuck with me.”

Earning a New Name

Seeing his budding talent, William’s Aunt Mondi dubbed him “Little Billy Strings” and the nickname stuck. She passed away around the same time that Apostol was starting to take on local open mic nights. So, one night after his beloved aunt passed away, he went to add his name to the board at an open mic and wrote Billy Strings. Once again, the name stuck.

Blending Tradition and Innovation

I mentioned earlier that Billy Strings has a command of traditional bluegrass but is more than a bluegrass musician. He acknowledged this in the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview. “I mean, there’s people out there that think what I do is absolutely insane or the opposite of bluegrass,” he said. Then, he admitted, “They’re not necessarily wrong, we do a lot of psychedelic, crazy stuff.”

However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know his roots. “…if you come and talk to me or sit down and pick with me, you won’t find somebody who’s more into the history of bluegrass or the fathers of bluegrass.

Strings told the publication that bluegrass is a reminder of where he came from. “When I listen to Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers, it’s almost like a portal straight back to when I was a really young boy and the music that my dad played for me.” He went on to say that he is grateful for his early education in bluegrass. “I’m really grateful he did that because I have a good life now, all because he taught me guitar, Doc Watson, and stuff – it brings me back to that love for my dad. Every day I’m on stage, I’m doing it for the old man.”

It’s true, there are some purists who say that Strings and other progressive bluegrass bands don’t fit the genre’s mold. However, many fans have gained an appreciation of traditional bluegrass, old-time music, and artists like the late great Doc Watson through Billy Strings.

Billy Strings Has a Wide Reach

In essence, Billy Stings may not fit the mold of a traditional bluegrass musician, but he loves the music and respects the history. At the same time, ‘grass is the heart of his guitar style. As a result, he acts as a gateway to the music and musicians that helped make him the artist he is today. However, he doesn’t just do this through his mind-blowing live shows, TV appearances, and ever-growing popularity. Strings also works with a wide range of artists.

In the past couple of years, Strings has shared the stage with former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, Post Malone, and several others. Additionally, you’ll hear him on a stack of new albums this year. He worked with fellow toots artists like Béla Fleck, Molly Tuttle, and Sierra Ferrell.

In 2021, Billy Strings worked with Luke Combs and rapper RMR on the singles “Great Divide” and “Wargasm” respectively.

These collaborations bring new eyes and ears to the dynamic young musician and the music he creates. Given enough exposure to Strings’ music, you’re almost guaranteed to continue down the bluegrass rabbit hole. You’ve been warned.