Many fans say the beloved Michigan-bred guitarist has changed their lives. Our October feature digging into unprecedented ardor for the superstar soared to No. 2 in our top stories of the year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Local Spins’ countdown of the Top 20 stories of the year has reached No. 2: Our examination of why fans across the country love Billy Strings so much. Scroll down for their comments and their favorite Billy Strings songs, along with a new photo gallery of fans who attended his Halloween homecoming show at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids.
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For self-professed Billy Goats, devotion to Billy Strings and his music often means tailing his band in Deadhead fashion on cross-country tours, amassing Billy Strings merch and special vinyl releases, tracking concert set lists and viewing countless concert live-streams.
For some, it even means dressing in goat-horn headdress as true Billy devotees (with G.O.A.T. signifying “greatest of all time”) — something fans can expect to see in copious numbers on Halloween for the Michigan-bred bluegrass guitar hero’s mammoth Van Andel Arena homecoming show, along with all manner of Billy-inspired costumes.
Take 27-year-old Detroit fan Malcolm Golia, who’s not only seen Billy Strings in concert six times over the past year, but whose very life revolves around the bluegrass guitarist’s schedule.
“I absolutely consider myself a diehard Billy Strings fan or Billy Goat,” he told Local Spins. “There’s not a single hobby, musician, sports team or anything of the like that has been so effortlessly woven into the fabric of my existence to the same degree as Billy Strings.
“My schedule revolves around his tour dates so I can stream sets as frequently as possible until the next time I am able to be at the show myself. … Billy Strings provides what has quickly become the soundtrack to my life.”
Or take Grand Rapids aficionado Sarah Smiles, who also “absolutely” calls herself a devoted Billy Goat, especially after the guitarist – who grew up in the Ionia County community of Muir as William Apostol – once stopped by her campsite at a music festival just to jam with fellow fans.
“He eliminates the generational gaps and brings people together,” said Smiles, who often makes her own Billy Strings swag and plans to wear a wrestling-themed outfit to the Oct. 31 “Van Andel Scramble” presented by “Rassle Rumblemania.” “He creates a joyful sound wherever he happens to be.”
That “joyful sound” has quickly captivated a growing legion of fans across the globe, making the Grammy Award-winning Billy Strings the face and the future of modern bluegrass, surprisingly turning what was once a niche genre into an arena-packing, psychedelic-tinged, jam-band phenomenon.
He’ll do it again at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena when Billy Strings will welcome an all-star cast (Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Mark Lavengood, John Mailander, Bill Nershi, Chris Pandolfi, Duane Trucks) for a special Michigan homecoming show. Remaining tickets – $39.50 – available online here.
WHY IS BILLY STRINGS SPECIAL? SELECTED FAN COMMENTS
(We received so many email entries from across the United States, we couldn’t publish them all here. Plus, scroll down for a photo gallery of fans at a 2022 Michigan show.)
Lynn Jauch – “I love Billy Strings and his entire band because they remain humble through their entire rise to success. His music makes happy.” (Favorite song: “Away from the Mire” because “it speaks to me on so many levels.”)
Matthew T. Rowe – “He’s awesome because he’s humble, he’s got a great band and he plays from the hear every show, every song and every note.” (Favorite song: “Fire on My Tongue”)
Julie Muchiarone – “Billy’s music has inspired me to remember every moment counts. It’s never too late to put one foot before the other and begin.” (Favorite song: “Long Forgotten Dream” because “I’ve seen that song come alive so many times in my life, my daughter’s life and friends’ lives.”)
Stef Hogie – “It’s great to see a home-state kid make it big. He has mastered his craft and has become an ‘overnight success’ after working/practicing since he was about 4 years old. I am so happy for him.” (Favorite song: “Must Be Seven”)
Laura Dixon – “He is my bluegrass hero because he is the complete rock star package: amazingly talented and practiced at guitar, beautiful vocalist, super loving and kind to his fans, and I love his dances – not to mention, he pays homage to the original bluegrass artists with respect and brings their music back into the light. I could talk forever about him.” (Favorite songs: “Away from the Mire,” “Cabin Song”)
Kaitlan Wade – “He and the band are my bluegrass heroes because they have fostered a whole new generation of bluegrass/Americana fans, myself included, while still paying homage to and celebrating those before them. My bluegrass and just general music knowledge and appreciation has increased from watching them grow/hone their skills in front of the world.” (Favorite song: “Dust in a Baggie” because “it’s got that fun, jaunty feel to it but the lyrics are poignant when you think about Billy’s upbringing.”)
Jamie Duitsman – “He makes you feel like he’s your ultra-talented, longtime buddy. Is it because he is so humble? Is it because he builds up his bandmates? Is it because he seems to be friends with everyone in the industry? Is it because Les Claypool officiated his wedding? Is it because I believe his sincerity in his appreciation for his fans? The answer is yes, it’s all of this.” (Favorite song: “Doin’ Things Right” because “it makes you feel like you want to bounce out of bed and get the day started in a positive way.”
Jamee Valdez-Welch – “The first time I saw Billy and Don (Julin) in 2013, I knew he had a spark. He has an energy that can suck you in and take you for a ride. He may have broken a string or two, as was the way back then. … I am a jam-band fan, but Billy has educated me over the years to traditional bluegrass standards.” (Favorite song: “Turmoil & Tinfoil”)
Jim Bond – “His virtuosic guitar playing and remarkable command of the instrument are immediately apparent to anyone who listens to his music. He has a unique ability to blend traditional bluegrass techniques with elements of rock, jam, and other genres, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in bluegrass music. … His charismatic stage presence and ability to connect with his audience create an electric atmosphere at his shows. He often improvises and takes risks during live performances, making each show a unique and memorable experience.” (Favorite song: “Meet Me at the Creek”)
Ralph Hall – “William Apostol started out in Traverse City playing open-mic night at The Hayloft bar alongside The Accidentals and Metis fiddle player Ruby John. Got regionally famous with mandolinist Don Julin, and now look at him, Grammy winner, entertainer of the year, new husband and fisherman. Hasn’t forgotten his roots, donating guitars to the students of his grade school alma mater. Killer licks and that boyish smile. What more can one ask?” (Favorite song: “In the Morning Light”)
Malcolm Golia – “Billy Strings is such a special, powerful force of raw talent, skill and improvisational virtuosity. His dedication to sharing, improving upon and experimenting with his musical prowess connects, empowers and positively impacts the lives of every person fortunate enough to experience the sound. … If you were to put listeners of bluegrass, country, rock, metal and jam bands of all ages, colors, creeds together, they’d look like the crowd at a Billy Strings show.” (Favorite song: “Secrets” because it “takes us on a soul-edifying journey examining the human condition … with wisdom that rides the line of existential honesty.”)
Owen Fedorko – “It’s the way he is able to blend all these different styles like rockabilly, bluegrass, country and rock that make one of the most unique combinations of bluegrass I have ever heard in my life. He can cover Black Sabbath in the same set as a cover of Doc Watson, but do it in such a way where it doesn’t just sound like a bluegrass band covering a song. He really suits the song and adds in a personal touch. … To say Billy Strings is a hero or an influence would be an incredible understatement.” (Favorite song: “While I’m Waiting Here” because “the song represents the best aspects about Billy.”)
Anthony Stambersky – “Much like the Grateful Dead, Billy can make the hair on my arms stand up, tears well up in my eyes and best of all smile, smile, smile. Words cannot do justice as for my adoration for his music. It’s an experience every time I hit play. I’m a 42-year-old male and have seen a ton of shows in my life. I can honestly tell you that he is the best musician I have ever heard pick up an instrument.” (Favorite song: “While I’m Waiting Here” because it “really strikes a chord with me.”)
Michelle Brooks – “I love Billy Strings. My husband lived in Ionia and is good friends with Jim Killion, a music store owner that used to help Billy out when he was a teenager. Jim, the store owner, would let Billy use their porch to practice and would continue to sell him guitars until they closed their store. Jim still lives in Ionia and swears Billy is the best modern bluegrass player alive.” (Favorite songs: “California Sober,” “End of the Rainbow”)
Brenda Morgan – “His music is so cool and different. His talent, singing and songwriting put him in a class way above anyone else. He is an exceptional genius and I am privileged to be alive to enjoy his music. I am from the ’60s and love that music. But from the minute I heard Billy, well, that is all I listen to. He should be adored because he just draws people to him with his down-home charm and care about others.” (Favorite songs: “Peggy O,” “Away From the Mire,” “Summertime”)
Sarah Smiles – “He plays well with others. All others. He learns from greatness. He eliminates the generational gaps and brings people together. He creates a joyful sound, wherever he happens to be – which was once at my camp, at a music festival. He just popped in and jammed with us for the better part of a couple hours. He is not only an outstanding musician and performer, he is also an outstanding human being with one of the greatest gifts to share. And share he does, happily and joyfully. I absolutely consider myself a Billy Goat! I’ve been enjoying his music since he was a teenager. … I don’t travel much, but when he’s in Michigan jamming with his pals, I’ll always be there if I can.”
Charles Cody – He has created his own sound and that’s so cool. I like him because he genuinely cares about his fans. I like him because he brings a great group of people together. I like him because he makes me happy. I heard him for the first time in March 2022. Saw my first show in June 2022 and the last Vermont shows were the 14th and 15th. Somehow, my wife has also jumped on the bus and she has been to 13 shows. We have 4 more in December to finish the year.” (Favorite song: “Meet Me at the Creek”)
Carol Pugh – “He is so humble and kind and genuinely loves each one of his fans. He is like an old soul but with a youthful spirit. Love him to pieces.” (Favorite song: “Show Me the Door”)
PHOTO GALLERY: Billy Strings Fans at Van Andel Arena (Halloween 2023)
Photos by Derek Ketchum
Photos by John Sinkevics, Chelsea Whitaker and Anna Sink
Photos by Derek Ketchum and Anna Sink