Billy Strings is one of the most beloved bluegrass guitarists today within the bluegrass community. He is currently on tour, stopping at the 2018 Old Settler’s Music Festival, where we watched him perform. His album, “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” taps into a deep vein of psychedelia in Americana, referencing everything from the Dead to Sturgill Simpson, but all underlaid by Billy’s undeniable virtuosity and his knowledge of the roots of American music.
We had the opportunity to briefly chat with Billy while he was on a laundry break (tour life, am I right?), and I just have to say that he was an absolute blast to talk with. Charismatic and open, personable and funny, I truly just wanted to be Billy’s friend at the end of the interview.
So to start off, when and why did you start writing and playing music?
Billy: I started playing when I was about three or four years old, and it’s all because of my father. My dad is a great guitar player and the best singer. He’s not a professional musician. He just hangs out. He’s played some gigs around Michigan, which, I’m really proud to see that. But for the most part, he’s always played around the house. He’s playing with more heart and soul than anybody I’ve ever heard in my life. That’s who I learned from and when I was a little kid – and you know how impressionable kids are – I was just a little impressionable kid and my dad was this amazing guitar player. It’s all because of him really. I saw the joy that he brought people through his music – we’d have house parties and people would come over and play, and all of his friends would be standing around, having a beer and smoking a joint, and listening to him sing old songs. He brought the party.
So this next question ties into that memory of yours. What are your fondest musical memories, whether it be with your dad growing up later down the road when you started making music?
Billy: There’s so many. It’s almost asking me my favorite memory of life, because music is my life. One of my very favorite memories is when I was trying to learn how to play “Beaumont Rag” when I was younger. My dad played all the fancy stuff. I just played rhythm of course, but I kept messing up this one part of “Beaumont Rag.” We were playing it, and I stopped right in the middle of the song and got frustrated and I said, “STOP! Hold on a minute.” And I said, “Why don’t you just play it, and just let me listen. I’ll just listen to you play it so I can figure out what’s going on.” And he did that. He played through the chords for me.
And I go, “Okay, now let me try it again.” And then I nailed it. And he just started laughing out loud, leaned over, and squeezed my little hand with the pick in it. He was super proud and even called my grandma and said, “You got to hear what your grandson is doing here.” That was a huge moment for me. It’s like if you’re on the baseball team and your dad is out there watching you hit a home run. It’s kind of one of those moments where you think “Wow, Dad was really proud.” And that’s really encouraging, because a father is your strength, and to have him proud of me like that felt really good. Then after that, I thought “I’m never going to stop,” and I kept up with it. And he’s the reason for that.
Jumping into your own music, can you describe your song writing process? Do you have a routine when it comes to creating music?
Billy: I wish I did. Shit, I wish I had some kind of magical formula to come up with all the good songs. Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe you just gave me an idea. Nah, sometimes it’s weird because I usually don’t write the lyrics first or the music first. I write them both at the same time. If I’m coming up with a musical idea or a melody, I’m thinking, “Okay, what does this make me feel like?” I try to imagine over the music, “What does this sound make me think of? Does it me think of love? Or does it make me think of travel?” It’s really just me kind of bopping around the house, pacing back and forth. I’m making stuff up. I don’t really have any solid routine, you know.
And how would you say your music has changed over the years? What’s the biggest difference in your music now compared to when you started?
Billy: I’m continually growing, as a human and as a musician. I hope it’s getting better, with playing, singing, performing, writing. If I go back and listen to something that I recorded on about two years ago, I can hear the improvement. I can’t notice it night-to-night, or I can’t go home and practice and learn one new little trick and go, “Oh gosh, now I’m better.” Over a long period of time you start to slowly, gradually feel like you’re getting better at your craft. So that’s how I think it’s changed. Hopefully I’m just getting a little more mature I guess.
Can you talk about your experience at the 2018 Old Settler’s Music Festival? What were some of the highlights for you?
Billy: Greensky Bluegrass is always a highlight. I liked how they kept talking about the ice cream cone. And it’s always a highlight to go to Texas because our bassist, Royal, is from Texas. Yeah, we love Texas. Big time down there. It’s always fun. SXSW was awesome, and Old Settler’s, shoot. There were a lot of great bands there. I really enjoyed seeing Colter Wall for a second – I got to check his set out for a little bit and man, he’s just killing it.
And what about performing there?
Billy: It was great. It’s always great. Every night is different. I think we really enjoyed the quiet setup in the woods, to be honest. The first set we played, I personally had sort of a rough night. It wasn’t anything to do with the festival or the crowd, it was just me. Sometimes it doesn’t always work like you want it to. But that’s all part of the fun – we played three sets – so as soon as you get done with one, if it wasn’t up to par, you get a next chance. So our next two sets were really fun. But it was awesome. We had a lot of friends down there, and we ended up not playing in the rain, which was lucky for us.
Are there any particular songs that you enjoy performing most?
Billy: That is a great question. We play “Meet Me at the Creek” a lot, and it’s always so different. I think that’s one that I really enjoy playing because it kind of goes on some different trip. It really takes off in a different direction each night, which is fresh for me. And it kind of feels good to be vulnerable out there and reach for something and hopefully be able to grab it.
Thinking back to your performances, are there any particular songs that you feel really resonate with the crowd?
Billy: I know a lot of them do, at least, it seems like lately. We’re up there doing our thing and really wearing our hearts on our sleeve and putting out our creative efforts. To have people out there soaking it up and enjoying it and also putting that energy back out to us is awesome. And what I do is, I get up there and I kind of look out at the crowd and try to gauge it. I actually look at people and kind of look them right in their eyes and say, “Are you enjoying this? Are you getting it? Are you digging this? What’s up? How are you doing out there?” without saying anything. I try to really get them to look into the music more, to pay attention just by paying attention to them.
Absolutely. Whenever I go to shows and I feel the artist is truly connecting with me, it makes it that much more special.
Billy: Yeah! It’s easy to just go up there and close my eyes and play the songs and be up there for an hour and a half. But then you don’t reach the people if you’re just going through the motions, you don’t reach anybody.
So what’s next for you? We know you’re on tour, but anything else coming up in the near future for you and your music?
Billy: Yeah, we’re on tour right now and we’re heading right into a big festival season. Belfast is coming up. We got Rooster Walk coming up, and we’re playing at Telluride this year. We’re also playing at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this year, opening up for The Del McCoury band – that’s coming up in June. That’s going to be sweet. We’re also going down to Mexico for Strings and Sol, so that’ll be fun. A lot of festivals! Gray Fox, there’s so many. I can’t really think of all of them, but we’re doing a lot of racing up and down the country.
Featured photo credit: Leigh Kettle