In an interview with his mom, Deb Apostol, Local Spins digs into the Ionia County-bred bluegrass guitarist’s childhood, teen rock years and his rise to super stardom.
Most fans by now know the story of how William Apostol got his famous Billy Strings stage name – from an aunt impressed by his bluegrass guitar prowess.
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And during his teen-age, metal-band years in Ionia County, when even Apostol said he’d get pretty crazy on stage, one fellow musician told Local Spins that other players dubbed him, “Wild Bill.”
But truth be told — ever since he was an infant – his family and friends actually know him as “Boomer.”
“Oh, lord. We all call him Boomer,” said Billy’s mother, Deb Apostol. “He was named Boomer from the second I held him. … I said ‘Oh my little Boomer.’ I still call him that.”
Apostol certainly has done nothing but prove that his booming success as a global bluegrass guitar superstar deserves that Boomer moniker. And maybe even, a different pseudonym that his mom has coined as of late.
“I call him the dream weaver,” Deb Apostol acknowledged in an interview earlier this week, noting that she never imagined that her son would headline a capacity show at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena, a special Halloween homecoming show unfurling on Tuesday.
“I did not. But I wouldn’t put it past him.”
SHOWING OFF HIS GUITAR SKILLS AT A YOUNG AGE
Indeed, Apostol and her guitar-playing husband, Terry Barber, recognized their son’s prodigious talent at a young age – and more than once.
When Billy was just 3 years old, he started strumming on a little toy guitar.
“Chuck-a-chuck-a-chuck, he had the rhythm, he had that,” Apostol recalled. “Terry and I said it at the same time: ‘That’s a guitar player.’ We knew it right away.”
Later, he would play Terry’s “big guitar” and eventually received an electric Fender Squier guitar with a Pignose amp.
“One day we were sitting at the dentist office and getting a tooth looked at. We heard ‘Barracuda’ by Heart,” Apostol said, recalling that Billy asked about the song and the popular 1970s rock band.
“We went home and he went into the bedroom, pulled out that Fender and he played ‘Barracuda’ note for note. I could not believe it. He heard it one time.”
Of course, Billy would eventually turn up the volume as a teenager, playing in the metalcore band To Once Darkened Skies.
He told Local Spins in a 2017 interview that he dyed his hair black and unleashed sets that were “the furthest thing from a bluegrass traditional performance.”
“We were jumping around the stage, head-banging, sweating, ripping our shirts off, kicking people in the audience, spitting on each other, stage-diving, breaking instruments, just everything,” he said. “Just crazy.”
Recalled his mom, whose tastes run from Pearl Jam to Doc Watson to Motown: “I didn’t care for metal. It’s not for me. I don’t understand it. But I had to let him do what he had to do. … If it’s something he feels in heart … If I held him back, maybe he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing today. Who knows?”
OVERCOMING DARK TIMES
Born in Lansing and raised in Ionia County’s tiny community of Muir (population under 700), Billy endured plenty of adversity and pain at an early age, something that’s also been well documented.
His father died of a heroin overdose when he was 2. And after Deb Apostol married Terry Barber, they became addicted to methamphetamine. Billy, too, delved into alcohol and hard drugs.
But all of them have recovered, moving forward as Billy’s career has evolved and prospered.
“We came through it,” Deb Apostol said. “We’re so lucky and it feels so good. I can look people in the eye and say, ‘What family member do you have that you’re worried about? Go get ‘em.’
“Everybody has something like that in their family somewhere. I’m happy I came out of it on the other side. I feel like it could have been so much worse. It’s been hard to work, but I felt like when I was done, I was done.
“We’ve all done that together. I think that we are an inspiration to other people.”
EMBRACING THE LOVING BILLY STRINGS COMMUNITY
More than anything, Apostol has become inextricably tied to the vendors and devoted fans who’ve traveled the country on Billy Strings’ tours.
Apostol herself creates jewelry, found object art and customized vintage clothing that she sells at shows. More than a dozen vendors will set up shop Tuesday ahead of Billy’s Van Andel Arena show on the second floor of the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids about a block away.
“It’s built a beautiful community around my son – the love that’s out there, the people that do the art,” she said. “They put their hearts and souls into it. There are so many people, it’s like family. We all look out for each other.”
Tuesday’s Halloween show – an annual favorite for Apostol – is also special because it’s her birthday. She’ll turn 63 on Tuesday and she wouldn’t want to celebrate it any other way, cheering on a son who’s become the face of modern bluegrass music which has exploded in popularity.
“I think that’s the way it was supposed to happen. I believe in passing it along and every generation has its own spin on it,” she said of the growing ardor for bluegrass.
“I love it, but it’s not just because it’s my son. I would love it if it was somebody else’s son. It has a lot of soul.”
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 (Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Mark Lavengood, John Mailander, Bill Nershi, Chris Pandolfi, Duane Trucks) playing a special Michigan homecoming show. Remaining tickets – $39.50-$59.50 – available online here. And stay tuned for our exclusive interview with Billy and his former music-mate, Don Julin.
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