The Grammy-nominated bluegrass star talks about writing, staying safe in a pandemic and getting ready to hit ‘the ground like a fireball’ when touring resumes. Plus listen to a playlist of artists he’s digging.
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No one could blame Billy Strings for taking advantage of the COVID pandemic shutdown to enjoy a little time off – time spent recharging his batteries and “fishing way too much.”
“It’s been therapeutic, meditative,” he offered in a recent telephone interview with Local Spins from his home in Nashville.
The much-needed break for the Michigan-bred guitarist with the nation’s best-selling bluegrass album of 2020, “Home,” came after nearly non-stop national touring, logging upwards of 200 shows a year with his uber-talented band.
But don’t let this 28-year-old musician’s talk of procrastinating and losing the calluses on his fingers fool you: The bluegrass hero has been anything but idle.
Not only has he been “writing a bunch” of new material for another studio album, but he and his band recently completed “12 Days of Bluegrass” – a holiday video series in which they uncorked covers of different songs every day for 12 days, raising money for the Nashville Rescue Mission, Musically Fed and Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.
VIDEO: Billy Strings, “Tennessee” (String the Halls’ “12 Days of Bluegrass”)
The kid who grew up as William Apostol outside Ionia also performed drive-in concerts, conducted a live-stream “tour” of Nashville concert venues and otherwise kept fans entertained online during the 2020 pandemic.
Plus, of course, he’s fielded a fair number of media interviews since “Home” was nominated for a Grammy Award for best bluegrass album, another feather in the cap for the fast-rising, flatpicking guitarist.
“Considering the year that we’ve had, it lifted our spirits,” said Apostol, who revealed that three members of his family – and others in his “musical family” – have been diagnosed with COVID.
“I’m really proud of that record and I’m proud of the band. They worked their asses off on it. I’m kind of excited for everyone else in a way who had something to do with it. The band deserves this. I was really stoked to tell these guys that ‘You played so good on this that you got nominated for a Grammy.’”
Apostol said it’s humbling to receive such acknowledgment from his peers in the industry.
“It feels crazy, dude. I’m just a little kid from Muir. I definitely didn’t expect it. I knew we potentially could be in the running for it and within the time frame, but I never really expected it to happen.”
Of course, like everyone else, he never expected the 2020 pandemic to shut everything down either.
“I probably could have written three albums’ worth if I put my nose to the grindstsone,” he conceded.
“I miss being on the road, being with my boys, being on the back of the bus playing video games and smoking weed – going out on stage and seeing thousands of people singing every word. That’s what I mean about taking it for granted. I didn’t realize how special it was until it was taken away from us.”
COVID concerns have left Apostol mostly sequestered at home in Nashville, “staying put” for the holidays rather than visiting his family in Michigan.
“My message is to take care of each other and stay safe out there. It’s crazy with all the COVID,” said Apostol, who even “pulled the plug” on a scheduled Austin City Limits event due to the pandemic.
“I just want to encourage people to wear a mask and stay safe. Down here in Tennessee, I still see people partying in bars and playing shows. … I just don’t think people should be doing shows right now. I’m not going to bring people into a venue; it’s just not the vibe right now. I’m trying to be responsible and safe.”
Staying off the road in 2020 has given Apostol time to listen to a wide swath of new music by artists representing myriad genres – from hip hop to country to pop. (Check out a video of his cover of a Post Malone tune here and scroll down to listen to his playlist of current favorites, including a track from Brazilian choro musician Dudu Maia who unfurls “some of the most amazing stuff” Apostol said he’s ever heard.)
VIDEO: Billy Strings with Sierra Hull, “Circles” by Post Malone
“I’ve been influenced a lot by other artists that I’ve listened to my whole life. I grew up in bluegrass, but I also listened to a lot of heavy metal and choro music and jazz. I just like all kinds of music,” he said, noting he’s acquired a growing admiration for commercially successful music that he once dismissed.
“I’m so much more open to everything right now. … I listen to everything. I’ll be listening to hip hop one second and Coltrane the next, and then the Grateful Dead. I love it all. It’s all music and it all makes me feel different things. It feels good to open up that way and not be so close-minded.”
That openness extends to collaborative songwriting with his band – banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Mast and mandolinist Jarrod Walker.
“I enjoy working with the band. … All the guys write good stuff. They’re really great musicians and have really amazing ears,” Apostol said. “Everybody has their own strengths. Billy is really good at putting together chord progressions and I’m really good with lyrics.”
Beyond composing material for the follow-up to “Home,” Apostol has high hopes for 2021 and prospects for getting back on the road, especially when it comes to playing his home state again.
“We’re going to hit the ground like a fireball,” he insisted.
“I miss you all and I can’t wait till I can come home and visit and play music and perform, especially for folks up there that gave me my start. I can’t wait to see everybody and I miss all my friends back home.”
VIDEO: Billy Strings & Band at Ryman Auditorium (October 2020)
THE BILLY STRINGS PLAYLIST FOR LOCAL SPINS
Here are some artists that Billy Strings has embraced in recent months.
VIDEO: Billy Strings, Live from the Station Inn for Country Music Week
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