In the Local Spins Artist Spotlight: The buzz about the fiery Michigan bluegrass duo keeps growing. They play northern Michigan this week, with December shows at Rockford Brewing and Founders Brewing.
It’s a cross-generational pairing that uncorks sizzling bluegrass with sweat-drenched rock ’n’ roll vigor.
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Billy Strings and Don Julin’s intense, ultra-lively performances have packed venues across Michigan and the country, boasting eye-popping virtuosity and lightning-quick acoustic wizardry on songs mandolinist Julin describes as “basically old-school, high-lonesome bluegrass” meshed with jazz and rock.
Or, as The Bluegrass Situation online magazine puts it: “the unholy child of Pantera and Tony Rice.”
As evidence of their growing popularity, the Traverse City duo’s latest live album, “Fiddle Tune X,” even soared last week to No. 4 on the Roots Music Report’s Top 50 bluegrass albums chart.
But to hear it from Julin and guitar phenom Billy Strings, aka William Apostol, nothing compares with getting the opportunity to tour this month with “hardcore bluegrass” legends Del McCoury and David Grisman, aka Del & Dawg.
Apostol called it “an unthinkable honor and privilege” – a dream come true to share the stage and jam with his bluegrass idols.
The Michigan duo wrapped up its travels with Del & Dawg on Sunday night in Chicago, after playing dates in New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
“To me, these dates with Del McCoury and David Grisman are undoubtedly going to be among the most important of my life,” said Apostol, a 22-year-old guitarist, singer and banjo player who has been performing with Julin, 54, since 2012. “Dawg and Del are two of my musical heroes, and I’m glad to call David (Grisman) a friend. I just can’t believe it. We are very lucky.”
ROCKING THE REGION’S ACOUSTIC MUSIC SCENE AND PACKING VENUES
For this northern Michigan duo whose bluegrass strains have been described as incendiary by HearthMusic.com, pairing up with national bluegrass icons seems apropos: They’ve rocked the region’s acoustic music scene the past two years and generated a buzz nationally among fans and music critics, playing packed houses from Rockford Brewing Co. to New York’s City Winery.
“My wildest dreams have always been to play music with great musicians for a living and so far I have been ‘livin’ the dream’ for my whole adult life,” said Julin, who cites such varied artists as Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Bill Monroe, Charlie Parker, John Hartford, and yes, Grisman, as influences. “We are just enjoying the moment as much as we can and are excited about what the future may bring.”
Those moments have brought plenty of attention to this dynamic pairing of a dazzling young guitarist and seasoned mandolin player who first met in a Traverse City coffee house in 2012 where Apostol was performing and Julin was “chipping away” at writing his “Mandolin for Dummies” book. They chatted, rehearsed once, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“You always hope that the music you create will reach out and touch the listeners,” said Julin, suggesting that renewed interest in Americana music has helped fuel their popularity. “Success or popularity in the music business is a pretty fickle thing. Some of the best music isn’t always popular, while some of the most popular music can sometimes be quite awful. Let’s just say that I am thrilled that so many people across the country are coming to our shows.”
Apostol explained the attraction this way: “We play very loud and fast.” (Check out videos of their “loud and fast” approach below.)
As for the duo’s unique chemistry, Julin said it’s like speaking “the same dialect” and having a meaningful musical conversation. “As with spoken conversations, listening is every bit as important as talking. I feel that we both share a language, but more importantly, we both listen to each other, responding in real time to what the other is playing, hopefully making for meaningful conversation.”
The duo demonstrates that interplay on two albums independently released in a short period of time – 2013’s “Rock of Ages” and that highly acclaimed new live recording, “Fiddle Tune X.”
“While the mainstream bluegrass bands seem to be getting slicker and slicker, we like to keep ours a little rough around the edges,” explained Julin, a Detroit native who moved to the Traverse City area as a teenager, picking up “bits and pieces” of formal music education at Northwestern Michigan College and Berklee School of Music. “And let’s face it: Most music fans love fast and loud.”
SIGNING WITH A NATIONAL BOOKING AGENCY, PLAYING MAJOR FESTIVALS
The duo also recently signed with the Crossover Touring national booking agency which has helped them land gigs at “top festivals across the country,” including Wintergrass in Seattle, Big Sky Bluegrass in Montana and Rockygrass in Colorado. And they are “looking around to see” if any record labels might be a good fit.
For Apostol – who was born in Lansing, grew up in Ionia (where he was “kicked out of school on several different occasions for various reasons – probably smokin’ and drinkin,’ you know, maybe playing banjo or something like that”) and moved to Traverse City in 2011 – playing bluegrass in the duo is everything he’s desired since playing with his dad, Terry Barber, at age 6 or 7.
“My dad had pickin’ buddies and we would all get together and play at my house or someone’s place. I would sit right next to my dad on a cooler and that’s how I learned,” said Apostol, a devotee of Doc Watson who picked up his nickname “Billy Strings” from a beloved family friend.
Years later, getting to hang out back stage and jam on stage with the likes of McCoury and Grisman has been the latest step in the duo’s surprising, meteoric rise.
“This is a very young band, and although I cannot even believe how far we’ve come, I often walk off stage having to convince myself that we sounded good, even when the crowd is raging and seemingly in love,” said Apostol. “We just go crazy and have fun up there, and people react to it. I am incredibly grateful for the amount of encouragement and support that we have received. It’s unreal, man. I don’t plan on slowing down.”
On Thursday, Billy Strings & Don Julin play Little Bohemia in Traverse City, followed by the Cabbage Shed in Elberta on Friday and Workshop Brewing in Traverse City on Saturday. On Dec. 19, they return to Rockford Brewing Co. in Rockford, followed by a Saturday appearance at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids along with Mark Lavengood’s Bluegrass Bonanza. Learn more about the band and purchase its music online here.
Billy Strings and Don Julin: “Little Maggie” at Second Story Garage
Billy Strings and Don Julin at Rockford Brewing
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