In a revealing chat with Local Spins, Ionia County’s favorite bluegrass son talks about touring, his adoring fans, taking classical music lessons and making Halloween a special homecoming.
Considering his jaw-dropping, virtuoso guitar work, the confession by the 31-year-old Michigan native and shining light of modern bluegrass comes as a bit of a shock.
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“For the first time, I’ve been practicing guitar a lot,” Billy Strings told Local Spins last week during a phone interview between band rehearsals in Nashville, noting he’s actually been taking lessons from a guitar instructor.
“I’ve been studying jazz guitar and classical stuff. I’ve been having my nose in the books. … I’ve always just played, and played in bands, but I’ve never had a deliberate practice routine. I’ve got a teacher who’s been kicking my ass learning all this Bach stuff and Charlie Parker tunes. That’s opening up my world a little bit.”
The world of Billy Strings already has expanded exponentially beyond the tiny town of Muir in Ionia County where he grew up as William Apostol and started his love affair with the guitar. Since those humble beginnings, he’s sold out concerts across the globe, won prestigious awards, appeared on national TV and released chart-topping bluegrass albums.
And on Tuesday, he’ll host a special Halloween homecoming show at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena, the first bluegrass artist to ever headline a capacity show at the 12,000-seat venue.
But for Billy Strings, who’s experienced one of his most eventful years yet – marrying longtime girlfriend Ally Dale in September while managing a grueling touring schedule – it’s all about getting better.
“I work hard. It’s not like I’m out here partying,” he said. “I’m trying to drink as much water as I can, get as much sleep as I can, eat healthy. It’s about being able to deliver the best shows that I can. I haven’t had a sip of alcohol in almost seven years. That’s all because I’ve been focusing on my work.
“This year was tough on me physically. I’ve been exhausted most of the year. We’re trying to figure out how much touring I can take and try to figure out what the right amount of touring is for me to not wear myself out.”
That much-desired break from the road might have to wait awhile longer: Less than a week after he and his band’s much-ballyhooed “Van Andel Scramble,” they’ll head overseas for a November tour of Europe.
“We’re doing 12 gigs in 15 days. Not a lot of sleep in between,” he conceded. “But it’s awesome. We’re in Amsterdam and France; we’re going to all these cool places. It’s awesome to get over there and play music for those folks. We play smaller places than we do over here, so it’s kind of nice in a way.”
A WRESTLING-RELATED HALLOWEEN HOMECOMING ‘SCRAMBLE’
Before all that, of course, Billy, his band and a horde of impressive guests from the bluegrass world – Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, John Mailander, Chris Pandolfi, Bill Nershi, Mark Lavengood and Duane Trucks – will heat up a tantalizing Halloween spectacle dubbed “The Van Andel Scramble.”
Building on a wrestling theme, musicians on stage will be costumed to the hilt as will thousands of devoted fans in the audience. It’s the latest edition of a Billy Strings Halloween show that’s become a tradition of sorts across the country.
“It’s always been my favorite holiday,” Billy said. “I love Halloween and I love dressing up and it’s my favorite time of the year.”
In the past, he and his band have uncorked themes surrounding “The Wizard of Oz” and “Lord of the Rings,” but nothing as elaborate or as wild as what’s being planned for Grand Rapids’ “wrestle rumblemania” show, he vowed.
“We’ve got a lot of surprises and we’ve been working hard on this gig. We take Halloween very seriously,” Billy said, noting musicians have been rehearsing in Nashville specifically for this show.
“There’s a whole kind of skit that goes along with it. … It’s just so cool to have my band who are just amazing musicians willing to go through all of this. That’s what we aim to do – put on a show for the folks.”
Along with recruiting award-winning and chart-topping acts such as Tuttle and Hull, Billy made sure to include longtime pal and Dobroist Mark “Huggy Bear” Lavengood of Coral, Mich., as part of the arena festivities. In many years past, they’d play together in small West Michigan venues and even on street corners.
“We were busking in the streets of Grand Rapids together nine or 10 years ago, in the middle of the day by Madcap Coffee,” Billy recalled. “And probably right outside Van Andel Arena. Now, we’ll be inside the arena.
“I’ve always wanted to play Van Andel Arena. And the first time I do I’m playing with this ridiculous wrestling thing. It’s gonna be great.”
GRATEFUL FOR HIS ULTRA-DEVOTED FANS
It’s also Billy Strings’ first Grand Rapids show in several years, after being forced to cancel a three-night run at GLC Live at 20 Monroe in 2021 due to COVID. (He played Kalamazoo’s Wings Event Center and other Michigan venues in the fall of 2022.)
That means he’s tickled to be coming home, appreciative of the Michigan fans and devoted “Billy Goats” who helped launch his career and who’ve continued to follow him around the country.
“They’re all my friends. It’s amazing. They’s so supportive and so dedicated to making it to the next show,” he said.
“I can’t believe it and I’m so grateful and I love these folks. They truly are everything to me. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was a little boy and these folks made it possible. I just want to kick ass for them.”
Despite the hero worship and his fast-expanding fan base, Billy is still Billy, a self-effacing kid from Ionia County who doesn’t see himself as a star.
“I don’t like to even see myself (at all),” he joked. “I just try to keep my head down and play guitar.”
Billy Strings’ “Van Andel Scramble” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena with an all-star cast playing a special Michigan homecoming show. Remaining tickets – $39.50-$59.50 – available online here.
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