That’s the first word that comes to mind when I consider both the playing and on stage antics of Billy Strings, the twenty-something Michigan born guitar player who is turning the bluegrass world upside down.
Sporting tattoos and ear lobes that bear signs of gauges, Strings approaches bluegrass guitar with a punk rock attitude. His live shows are powerful and frenetic, complete with whirlwind solos, extended jams, and heavy metal headbanging not usually seen on the bluegrass scene.
After spending time in both the studio and on the road with mandolinist Don Julin, some two decades plus his senior, Strings is now off making music with his own band. Late last month, he released his first solo record, Turmoil & Tinfoil, a collection of solid bluegrass tunes that showcase Strings’ guitar prowess and enviable tenor.
I recently caught up with Billy Strings to chat about the new record, bringing his dad to the studio, and music that sometimes comes from dark places.
BRO – You happen to wear a Fit Bit on stage? I’d love to know how many calories you burn through in a show.
BS – No, I don’t wear a Fit Bit. But I do wear a shock collar. I also have shock bracelets and shock anklets, so every time I make a mistake, I get a little shock on stage.
BRO – I first came across your playing through your work with Don Julin. As a young player, what did it mean to you to be working with a picker with his experience?
BS – Don Julin showed me how to become a working musician. Before I met him, I was playing a few gigs here and there, but I was paying rent by working at this hotel in Traverse City. Don show me how to avoid having a day job and I’ve been burning up the highway and avoiding one ever since.
BRO – Turmoil & Tinfoil features a guest spot by your dad. That had to be special.
BS – My dad is the whole reason I do this. He started me out really young playing bluegrass guitar and he never made me do it. He always made me want to do it. Nobody can touch him, as far as I’m concerned. He can embody the soul of a song like nobody else. The way he feels music is really special. I could go on for hours about the man. I love my dad, and bringing him into the studio to record was definitely a very happy moment for us. My voice always sounds the best when it’s right next to his.
BRO – We are featuring the title track from the new record on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
BS – Growing up in Ionia, Michigan, meant growing up in a picture perfect image of small town America. There wasn’t much to do but to try to find something to do. We would skateboard when we were younger, but as we got older, some of us slipped away to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. A lot of us, actually. There were people I loved that were so far gone, even though their bodies were still there. I saw the darker side of life early, and that’s what that song is about.
BRO – You are the most aptly named person I know. Ever consider how your life might have panned out if you were Billy Jackhammer or Billy Spark Plug?
BS – Well, I never had much of a knack for anything else but music. My brother Aaron can fix anything. My grandfather taught him a whole lot about toolin’ on cars and such. I wasn’t interested in that as much for some reason. I was more into pickin’ than pistons. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t even want to try. I’m lucky as hell to be able to play music and travel around and see all my friends all the time.
Make it a point to catch Billy and his band as soon as they hit a stage near you. Gigs across the Midwest are on tap for the next week before Billy Strings heads out to Washington and Oregon to finish out October.
For more on Billy Strings, his touring schedule, or how you can grab a copy of Turmoil & Tinfoil, check out his website.