Our No. 11 story of the year digs into the early days of Billy Strings’ success with Traverse City mandolinist Don Julin, who says Billy deserves ‘every bit’ of his global fame. Revisit the story here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In October, Local Spins celebrated “Billy Strings Month,” publishing a series of stories about the Ionia County native and bluegrass star ahead of his epic Halloween night homecoming show at the 12,000-capacity Van Andel Arena. One of those stories looked back at the early days of his successful run with Traverse City mandolinist Don Julin. Revisit our interview here, scroll down for more musician comments about Billy and check out a classic Local Spins at River City Studios video session.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
When veteran mandolinist Don Julin heard that a certain “guitar-slinger kid” had just moved to Traverse City, he knew he had to check him out.
So one evening in 2011, Julin got his first taste of future bluegrass star Billy Strings.
“I heard he was playing with some friends at a local coffee house (Brew). I grabbed my laptop and headed down. I listened to a set that confirmed the rumor,” Julin recalled. “At the end of the gig, I introduced myself and asked if he was interested in playing some music. He said, ‘Sure,’ gave me his phone number, and went on his way.”
About a week later, he and Billy — who was 19 at the time — spent an evening playing tunes by a bluegrass legend who had just passed away.
“He entered his bedroom and came out with the largest selection of Doc Watson LPs I had ever seen,” Julin said. “A few minutes later, we were playing some Doc tunes together. It was clear from the beginning that we heard music in a similar way and could play together easily. Sometimes, it just clicks.
“We played our first gig that Friday night at Poppycock’s in Traverse City. The rest is history.”
Indeed, Billy Strings has made history as a chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning, venue-packing bluegrass star.
But before all that, he and Don Julin made a splash in Michigan and regionally for more than two years, touring small venues, playing festivals and rubbing elbows with renowned bluegrass scene veterans.
And after Billy parted ways with Julin in 2016 for a move to Nashville, his star continued to rise – to the point where he’s now headlining large venues such as the 12,000-capacity Van Andel Arena for a Halloween homecoming show.
Julin, for one, isn’t surprised.
“It has been amazing watching his meteoric rise to fame. It is good to know that ‘it’ can still happen; even better, it can happen to someone you know and consider a friend,” Julin said.
“He has paid his dues and worked hard at his success and fame. He deserves every bit of it. I hope he can take it all in and enjoy the dream.”
Part of the reason for that success?
“The guy has the biggest ears I have ever worked with. I am sure he could hear the birds singing and find those notes on his guitar on the first try,” said Julin, echoing similar comments made by Billy’s mother and others.
“He channels Doc Watson like nobody else. My favorite part of playing with Billy was how he listened and how we could have an improvised musical conversation. That is a beautiful thing when it happens.”
JUST SHOWING BILLY ‘WHAT WAS POSSIBLE’
Julin insisted that Apostol already was “a very developed bluegrass musician” when they met, though the mandolinist did introduce him to the music of John Hartford, Tom Waits and Sun Ra. Apostol also wasn’t concerned with the business side of music.
“When we met, he didn’t consider music a business or a way to make a living. He worked at a hotel and played guitar at open-mics for fun and free drinks. I took our duo to IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) and Folk Alliance conferences to see if we could get noticed on the regional or national level. We all now know the rest of the story. If I did anything, I like to think I showed him what was possible, and he did it.”
As for the IBMA, Billy Strings has since won that organization’s “Entertainer of the Year” award three years in a row.
Julin, meanwhile, continues to mentor the next generation of musicians, primarily through instruction on the mandolin.
“Mandolins Heal The World is my subscription mandolin lesson site. Hundreds of subscribers pay an annual or monthly fee to access a library of pre-recorded mandolin lessons. I also host multi-week online mandolin workshops that combine live Zoom sessions with pre-recorded content and office hours sessions where students can ask questions and get live coaching,” he noted.
“Overall, this is an excellent way for students to learn, and I am having a great time teaching from my basement studio.”
He also travels and teaches at acoustic music camps. “Teaching bluegrass with many of the top players in the industry in an honor, and I feel fortunate to be invited to the party,” he acknowledged.
Of course, he continues to perform as well, with The Don Julin Trio (Joe Wilson on Dobro and Kevin Gills on bass) mounting an upcoming Michigan tour that includes The Ark in Ann Arbor, Northfield Instruments in Marshall, The Ten Pound Fiddle in Lansing, Guitar Haven in Grand Haven and The Alluvion in Traverse City.
He also plays a four-string electric tenor guitar in Traverse City musician Jeff Haas’ band BIG FUN and for a reggae-style jam band The Ol Microtones.
As for recording projects, Julin’s working on a new acoustic mandolin album, “Fractured Fiddle Tunes,” with a planned 2024 release.
WHAT OTHER MICHIGAN MUSICIANS SAY ABOUT BILLY STRINGS
Eric Langejans, guitarist for Full Cord: “The one thing that always stuck out to me when we first met was his cleanliness: He could play really fast and still have space between the notes. Some of the clearest flatpicking I have heard. A lot of time with speed comes sloppy as the notes run together, but not with him. I always loved playing music with him late into the morning hours. When a friend of mine first heard him pickin’, he was like, that dude plays cleaner than Billy Graham’s drug test!”
Austin Ruhstorfer, recording engineer at River City Studios and a musician whose band once played rock shows with Billy: “He didn’t play ‘follow the leader.’ He makes truly his own original music, with his own tastes and personality to shape it. He plotted out a professional, commercial career and with hard work, pragmatism, and talent, he ultimately executed it. Not unlike a Trent Reznor, or a Dave Grohl, Ed Sheeran or a Billy Corgan. One of the big mistakes the commercial music industry, music scenes, local artists and cities alike make is they tend to only want to deal with what’s in the ‘known.’ But it’s the artists who bring in the ‘unknown’ to the table and carry that artistry, musical flag, weirdness and originality who usually do find themselves with a career, a fan base and a certain status/recognition that most won’t and don’t reach. His music and personality communicates on a multitude of levels with a wide, cross-over audience. I think that is what makes him Billy Strings.”
VIDEO: Billy Strings and Don Julin
Local Spins Live at River City Studios (2015)
For more about Billy:
Copyright 2023, Spins on Music LLC