The hometown boy with roots in Ionia and Traverse City can’t wait to play a sold-out New Year’s Eve show in Grand Rapids after an award-winning, chart-topping year. Part 1 of the Local Spins interview.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Local Spins editor/publisher John Sinkevics recently conducted a lengthy, in-depth interview with award-winning West Michigan guitar hero Billy Strings (William Apostol), who’s become one of the hottest stars on the national bluegrass scene. This is the first of two parts of the revealing chat prior to an upcoming homecoming show in Grand Rapids. Part II will delve into the difficulties, pressures and serious mental health issues that affect many touring artists. Scroll down for videos of recent live performances in New York.
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With a new album that’s spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart and a sold-out national tour, Michigan-bred Billy Strings has seen a lot of his dreams come true this fall.
As he puts it: “I’m just manifesting my own destiny in a way.”
His latest album, “Home,” debuted at No. 1 right after he snagged guitar player of the year and new artist of the year honors at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville, where he’s made his home since late 2015.
“Home,” produced by East Lansing’s Glenn Brown and Billy Strings, aka William Apostol, resonates with classic bluegrass fire, psychedelic touches and even a gospel-driven, harmony-filled finish via “Freedom,” which closes out the album.
The sold-out national tour behind that release wraps up in late December with two shows at Detroit’s Majestic Theater and a New Year’s Eve bluegrass blast at The Intersection in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids show sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale.
Apostol, who conceded he’s been “the busiest guy ever” amid the pressure and hype of his meteoric rise, said in a recent phone interview with Local Spins from the road that he’s barely had time to process all of the accolades and accomplishments. It’s a challenge, he said, to balance the stresses of his upward trajectory with a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s kind of crazy because I’m so busy with this tour that I don’t know if it’s really settled in yet,” he said. “I’ve just got my nose on the grindstone. But what an honor to get those awards and have the album do so good. It just feels really good, man. It makes me happy.”
What really make Apostol happy is bringing his band to Michigan in December to close out a long, cross-country tour. Initially, the tour was to end in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve. But that date was “pulled back” so that the band could play Grand Rapids, just 33 miles west of Ionia, where he grew up.
COLLABORATING WITH HEROES LIKE BELA FLECK; MISSING MICHIGAN HANGOUTS
“I miss being in Michigan, especially at this time of year. I miss it a lot,” he said as the tour bus traveled between Atlanta and Nashville, where he now resides when he’s not on the road.
“I’m always never in one place for long, so that makes me miss just hanging around Traverse City and going to the beach.”
He added that when he first started making a splash several years ago with Traverse City mandolinist Don Julin at places like Little Bohemia, he cultivated a devoted fan base that’s he’d love to reward with Michigan tour stops. He last played in Michigan at the Hoxeyville Music Festival in August, where he had a chance to rub elbows with Michigan musicians and writers he holds in high regard.
“There’s something in the water up there,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. But there’s some amazing songwriting up there.”
As a result, he said: “I’m just trying to get to Michigan as much as I can. I feel like there’s a lot of people in Traverse City, Ionia, Lansing who want to see me – especially those folks in Traverse City who put me in a canoe and shoved me off and said, ‘Go Billy. The boat’s going to float just fine.’
“I want to get back and perform for those folks because they’re the ones that got me started on this whole thing. I really want get home to play for my folks, my family, my friends, the folks that started this whole thing, the folks that have been there from the beginning.”
Finishing up the tour in Michigan also gives him a chance to relax with family and friends after a grueling stretch on the road with an all-star band featuring banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat and mandolinist Jarrod Walker. Playing more than 200 gigs a year, Apostol and his band have had a chance to collaborate with bluegrass heroes such as Sam Bush, Del McCoury and David Grisman, and regale audiences at historic venues such as Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and Athens’ Georgia Theatre.
Apostol has even struck up a friendship with Bela Fleck, and ended up as a guest on one of the banjo virtuoso’s recording projects.
“I’ve got everything going for me and it’s unreal. This is literally my biggest dream coming true,” he said. “This is what I’ve always wanted, but it’s amazing what touring 200 days a year does to a person mentally. I never really realized what traveling musicians go through until I’ve been doing it for seven or eight years.” (Part II of the Local Spins interview will delve into the downside of this chaotic pace.)
In January, he gets a chance to kick up his feet for a while in his home state.
“I’m looking forward to taking some of that time off and spending it with family. I miss my niece and nephew very much and I want to be in their life more. I want to make that a priority to be with family,” he said.
“Usually, because I’m so tired, I just want to lay in my bed for five days and sleep. I need to go fishing, skateboarding. I need to be with friends and family.”
VIDEO: Billy Strings, Live at Paste Studios in New York
VIDEO: Billy Strings, Live at the Brooklyn Bowl (Set 1)
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