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Rising bluegrass star Billy Strings infuses traditional Appalachian sounds with his experience in a heavy metal band.
Band: Billy Strings
Date: Sunday, Nov. 11, with doors at 7:30 p.m.
Venue: Soul Kitchen, 219 Dauphin St., www.soulkitchenmobile.com
Tickets: $10 in advance/$13 day of show, available through venue website or 1-866-777-8932
Since emerging from Appalachia, bluegrass has remained a staple of Americana. As with other forms of classic American music, musicians have taken bluegrass and freshened its sounds with a variety of influences, which may not resonate with purists. In recent years, progressive bluegrass, or “Newgrass,” bands such as Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have used elements of jazz and jam rock to provide a new interpretation.
Now, rising star Billy Strings has entered the scene with a style that is a perfect balance of tradition and innovation, inspired by a twofold musical foundation that began with constant exposure to bluegrass throughout his childhood.
“When I was learning my alphabet and how to tie my shoes, I was also learning music, and the music was bluegrass,” said Strings, who began life as William Apostol.
Strings says his father passed on his love for bluegrass to him, filling their home with the sounds of classic artists as Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, and loved playing it himself. Strings also witnessed the infectious joy his father’s renditions would bring to crowds at social functions.
“He was always jamming at parties and bringing joy to people, and I saw that,” Strings said. “My dad was really cool at the parties. He was leading the jam, and I was like, ‘That’s awesome! Everybody is really happy that my dad is here playing!’”
Entering his teens, Strings became fascinated with classic heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. His first performance onstage was with a metal band. But bluegrass pulled him back, and today he carries on the traditional but peppers it with metal fills and a style that previously hasn’t been heard.
Strings says the fusion wasn’t intentional, seeing it more as a natural artistic movement from his early musical influences.
“That’s [heavy metal] obviously a lot different than bluegrass, but a lot of that stuff stuck with me too,” he said. “I can’t just let that go. It’s part of who I am and how I grew as a musician. I have to hold on to that and give that appreciation just like I do the bluegrass. It’s not even something that I try to do, but it just happens. Even when I play bluegrass, I still jump around onstage and headbang. I learned how to play music playing bluegrass, but I learned how to perform in a metal band.”
It was when he began a professional career in music that William Apostol became Billy Strings. He said a late “dear friend” of his mother gave him the nickname in his childhood. This family friend passed away the same time Strings was performing at open mic nights in Traverse City, Michigan. One night, he decided to bill himself as “Billy Strings” to honor the memory of his mother’s friend. The name “just stuck.”
“Next thing you know, I had a gig, and this brewery made a poster with ‘Billy Strings’ on it,” he said. “Twenty years later, here I am.”
As with many young up-and-comers, Strings traded Michigan for Music City. Many Nashville hopefuls enter the city’s musical arena as strangers, but Strings’ experience was very different. Through years of touring, he’d established many connections. After unloading his belongings, he ventured into the Nashville bar scene and found many familiar faces.
“I knew more people in East Nashville than the town that I just moved from,” he said. “Just from being on tour and being in the musical community with so many friends playing in different bands and on tour, that’s where they all live. It’s a trip. As soon as I got there, I was like, ‘Oh wow! This is where I’m supposed to be.’”
Strings’ audience at Soul Kitchen will be treated to songs from his full-length debut, “Turmoil and Tinfoil.” Throughout the album, he sandwiches metallic Phrygian, Hungarian and diminished string trips between measures of some of the finest contemporary bluegrass America has to offer.
Strings recruited producer Glenn Brown (Greensky Bluegrass, Luke Winslow-King) to join him in the studio for the endeavor.
“He is a very supportive and positive and bright individual,” Strings said of Brown. “I think he’s kind of a genius, wizard kind of guy. He has perfect pitch and everything that should be. He is on the edge of the seat working with guys all the time. He’s a great dude to work with.”
Strings hopes the album captured the spirit of his live show. However, he admits this is a difficult task. Like many musicians, Strings says he thrives from the symbiotic energy created between musician and audience. When the mood is right, he said his band explodes with wild improvisation that cannot be duplicated in the studio. He admits the only true way to experience his one-of-a-kind bluegrass style is to witness it in a live setting.
“You should really come see our concert to see what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We have musical conversations onstage with our instruments. We interact with each other and go into uncharted sonic territory and make ourselves vulnerable along the way. The fans are there with us the whole time, waiting for us to crash.”