The region’s hottest bluegrass group – tabbed to play Friday’s prestigious Ann Arbor Folk Festival – talks about its music and performs scorching renditions of new and old classics in an intimate, exclusive setting.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of Local Spins Live at River City Studios podcasts of performances and interviews featuring some of West Michigan’s most compelling, emerging artists.
The grimaces, the grins and the goofy facial expressions often tell the story of a particularly rousing Billy Strings & Don Julin performance, with audiences roaring and screaming their approval as the Traverse City bluegrass duo careens breathtakingly through another rapid-fire, extended jam.
“We say ‘One, two, three, four, here we go,’ and just hang on,” said 22-year-old guitarist Billy Strings, aka William Apostol, referring to the group’s fiery, foot-stomping, flat-picking spectacles. “The thing is we’re listening to each other. It’s kind of a conversation we’re having.”
As mandolinist Julin, 54, put it: “We kind of take a jazz approach maybe to bluegrass material. Some of the songs are the same every time. But if you’ve seen us enough times, you know that … anything can happen in any song and at any moment could be this big long jam that lasts 10 minutes and ends up in a different song than where we started.
That kind of freedom to improvise, that’s what really attracted me to playing with Billy.”
For a little more than two years, that uncommon chemistry has generated some of the most memorable acoustic performances and one of the most impressive pairings of bluegrass musicians that West Michigan has ever spawned.
Billy Strings and Don Julin, now often accompanied by Traverse City standup bassist Kevin Gills, quickly have become one of the country’s most sought-after bluegrass outfits, releasing two highly praised albums and touring with the likes of the legendary Del McCoury and David Grisman, aka Del & Dawg.
On Friday, they’ll represent Michigan at the prestigious Ann Arbor Folk Festival, a weekend celebration of roots music at Hill Auditorium that will feature such stars as Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Yonder Mountain String Band, Amos Lee, Ani DiFranco and Buffy Sainte-Marie. (Some tickets for Friday’s show remain; details online here.)
And they’ll crisscross the country throughout 2015, playing high-profile, bluegrass-driven festivals such as Grey Fox, Wintergrass, DelFest, Rockygrass, Romp and more. (They’ll also play the Jammie Awards show hosted by WYCE-FM 88.1 on Feb. 13 at The Intersection in Grand Rapids.)
PLAYING WITH THEIR HEROES AND LIVING THE DREAM
“We’re really excited about that,” says Apostol, who started playing his first “real” guitar at age 4, growing up in Ionia, reared on the music of Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. “Looking at our names on the flyers with all of our heroes is just like, ‘Whoa, really?’ It’s kind of bizarre to think I’m friends with some of these guys I worshipped from when I was 10 years old.”
BILLY STRINGS & DON JULIN: THE PODCAST
But before all that, they traveled to Grand Rapids earlier this month to take part in the second Local Spins Live at River City concert-and-interview podcast, an exclusive opportunity to talk about their music and perform in front of a small, invitation-only audience.
The event was captured on video by a team of Grand Valley State University students and recorded for the podcast by River City engineers Roy Wallace and Austin Ruhstorfer. Local Spins photographer Anthony Norkus documented the evening for the Local Spins photo gallery.
The evening was, in a word, exhilarating.
The trio not only demonstrated its eye-popping virtuosity on old classics such as “Little Maggie” and original barn-burners “Albino Skunk,” “Dust in a Baggie” and the brand new, “Dealing Despair,” but frankly expressed their views on the national resurgence of bluegrass and why northern Michigan has become such “a cool place” for music, while giving listeners insights into their influences, what makes their music tick and why they’re so passionate about their art.
“Ever since I was a little kid, that’s all I wanted to do was play,” Apostol told the audience that evening. “To me, bluegrass is a music that’s earthy and organic. You can learn it from a book, maybe you could learn the tunes, but if you don’t have the soul and feeling to it, to me, you’re not playing it. There’s a whole feeling behind it. It’s lonesome and it’s really special music to me.”
LOCAL SPINS LIVE AT RIVER CITY WITH BILLY STRINGS & DON JULIN: THE VIDEO
BILLY STRINGS & DON JULIN: PHOTO GALLERY BY ANTHONY NORKUS
Read more about Billy Strings & Don Julin in this Local Spins Artist Spotlight.
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