Grammy winner Billy Strings: ‘You’ve got to be a badass to play bluegrass’

Tahoe Onstage
Fast, furious and astounding, Billy Strings gets down at High Sierra in 2017.

A bluegrass hub, Lake Tahoe loves the strings. And Billy Strings digs Tahoe.

“There are some rabid fans up there, and some of the most colorful people in the world,” Strings said. “The first time I ever went to High Sierra Music Festival, I never saw so much magnificence. Such fabulous people and glitter and nipples and rainbows and people who are all there just to have a good time.”

The charismatic, gifted, 28-year-old guitarist played the 2019 WinterWonderGrass, 2018’s Hangtown Music Festival and High Sierra in 2016 and ’17. He also played in the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room in September 2019. The show sold out in advance.

Billy Strings’s studio album, “Home,” which was recorded between tours last two winters ago, won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.

Billy Strings at the 2018 Hangtown Music Festival. Tahoe Onstage photo

Before heading out on a West Coast Tour, Strings and banjo legend Bela Fleck played a half-hour set at the AmericanaFest in Nashville. A video of the performance went viral in an instant.

Born William Apostol in rural Muir, Michigan, Billy Strings was given his stage name by an aunt, who witnessed an incredible talent. He plays with such precision, speed and emotion, it’s as if he’s channeling the bluegrass progenitors. Maybe he is.

Heading out of Nashville and doing an interview, Strings paused to reflect on his performance with Bela Fleck.

“It’s so unreal,” he said.” It’s like, whose life am I living in?’ I have this imposter syndrome. I don’t know how I got up here. I guess, I am just going to try to do my best. Growing up, I worshiped these guys. They were God-like figures to me. Now I am realizing they are just regular people who grew up playing bluegrass just like me. “

Strings calls 74-year-old David “Dawg” Grisman a close friend.

When he was a boy, his father gave him the album “Doc & Dawg,” the superb collaboration of mandolin player David Grisman and guitarist Doc Watson.

“Everywhere I went, on the school bus, at school I listened to that record. I need to mention Jack Lawrence’s contribution, too. His guitar playing left a huge impression on me. I never got to meet Doc but Dawg has become a good friend of mine. A mentor, somebody I can call and ask just about anything. Dawg’s in his 70s and Bela in his 50s and again, I am friends with people who are older than me.”

Strings said when he was “7, 8, 9 or 10” years old, he played bluegrass jams with players much older, some in their 70s and 80s.

“It seemed like those old folks loved me because I played that old-timey music from their generation,” he said.

Strings first paying shows were with a heavy metal band. He said he would sometimes open a show by running with his guitar into the audience, which would push him back onstage.

“I used to play in a metal band, and we were headbanging and jumping all over the stage and just about climbing up and down the walls and I remember mosh pits and sitting on people and the audience,” he said. “That’s how I learned how to perform in front of people. Bluegrass is how I cut my teeth musically and learned my chops.”

After his metal rock and roll experience, Strings said his appreciation for acoustic guitar grew tenfold.

“The cool thing about bluegrass is the instrumental proficiency that you have to have to keep up with the music itself. There’s nothing to hide behind. You’ve got to be a badass to play bluegrass.”

 — Tim Parsons

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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  1. He is definitely a badass! Amazing talent and a genuine, humble young man. He’s going to be huge! And his band doesn’t suck, either.

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