The fast-rising, Ionia-bred guitarist is up for best bluegrass album at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, but he’s just thrilled that his bandmates have gotten attention for their hard work and stellar musicianship.
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As Michigan bluegrass hero Billy Strings so humbly puts it, he’s just “a little kid from Muir” in Ionia County.
So, being nominated for bluegrass album of the year at Sunday’s 2021 Grammy Awards seems a bit unreal.
“It feels crazy, dude. I definitely didn’t expect it,” said the guitarist who came into this world as William Apostol and played in a rowdy, stage-diving, instrument-breaking metal band as a teenager. “I knew we potentially could be in the running for it and within the time frame, but I never really expected it to happen.”
Nevertheless, he’s fielded all manner of media interviews since 2019’s “Home” was nominated for a Grammy Award for best bluegrass album — from Rolling Stone magazine to NPR — another feather in the cap for the fast-rising, flatpicking guitarist. The album also was named Billboard’s No. 1 bluegrass album of the year for 2020.
“Considering the year that we’ve had (with the pandemic), it lifted our spirits,” said Apostol, who revealed that three members of his family – and others in his “musical family” – were diagnosed with COVID at one point.
“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.’”
As he prepares for 2021, post-Grammys and post-COVID, the 28-year-old musician has been “writing a bunch” of new material for another studio album and getting ready for a host of live shows starting later this month — from Florida to New Orleans to South Carolina and Alabama.
The kid who grew up as William Apostol outside Ionia spent “the year of COVID” mostly isolated, but also performing drive-in concerts, live-stream “tours” and otherwise keeping fans entertained and engaged.
Apostol conceded it’s humbling to receive Grammy acknowledgment from his peers in the industry. He joins Danny Barnes (“Man on Fire”), Thomm Jutz (“To Live in Two Worlds, Vol. 1), Steep Canyon Rangers (“North Carolina Songbook”) and Various Artists (“The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Vol. 1) in vying for the top bluegrass album award, set to be presented in a “pre-show” on Sunday afternoon.
“I was pretty blown away. … We’ve been acknowledged by our peers and to get nominated for a Grammy is one of the highest honors in the industry as far as an award goes.”
The guitar whiz previously was honored as guitar player of the year and new artist of the year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards.
“Home” soared straight to the top of the Billboard bluegrass chart after its release. It was produced by East Lansing’s Glenn Brown as well as Billy Strings.
“I’m really proud of that record and I’m proud of the band. I’m kind of excited for everyone else in a way who had something to do with it,” Apostol said of his bandmates Billy Failing, Royal Masat and Jarrod Walker.
NOT REALIZING HOW SPECIAL TOURING WAS ‘UNTIL IT WAS TAKEN AWAY’
“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.”
Apostol, who now makes his home in Nashville, wrapped up his sold-out, 2019 national tour in Grand Rapids on New Year’s Eve with a jam-packed, hometown show at The Intersection. He followed that in February – prior to the COVID-19 shutdown – with a special Michigan mini-tour of smaller venues (including Ionia Theatre), performing as a duo with his stepfather and mentor, Terry Barber.
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.)
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 bandmates Failing, Mast and 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 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)
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