When I catch up with Billy Strings, it happens to be the day after he delivered 200 guitars to kids at his old elementary school in Muir, Mich.
“It was probably the coolest thing I’ve done in my entire life,” says Strings, 29. “I cried a little bit when I gave those kids all them guitars.”
His own guitar has “pulled me out of a lot of [expletive],” he says. “When I lived in that tiny little town, I never thought I could make it. So I’m telling them kids: I just showed up to your school in two tour buses with a Grammy under my belt — and I used to sit in the same desk as you.”
Born William Apostol and influenced by an eclectic smattering from Black Sabbath to the Grateful Dead, Strings is a self-described “skater kid” who was “saved by his guitar.” A bluegrass prodigy at 4, Strings has become a flat-picking virtuoso who can deliver high-lonesome blues or fall into a psychedelia space jam. He might show up with pink hair to deliver a Doc Watson barnburner.
Call him jamgrass. And therein lies his magic: that ability to blend the traditional with new school, to capture die-hard bluegrass old-timers or, say, a Jimmy Kimmel audience, and then turn around and charm Gen Z jam-band festival scenesters with incendiary live shows. (Like many of the dates on his current tour, Strings’s Nov. 17 concert at the Boch Center Wang Theatre is sold out.)
It’s perhaps why Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann tapped him for his band Billy and the Kids. Actually, aside from that guitar delivery to kids at his old school, the other time Strings cried was when Kreutzmann bestowed upon him original Robert Hunter lyrics to set to music. The result is the rollicking “Thunder.”
“I cried like a baby for like two hours, it was just so validating,” says Strings.
When I called Strings recently, he talked hard times, hard living, and fixing to die blues.
Q. You just gave guitars to students in your hometown. What sparked that?
A. I was in a therapy session, and realized my guitar has always been my coping mechanism and survival strategy. I wanted to give that opportunity to some of those children in case they were going through a hard time, too. To at least have a friend to distract them. And maybe even save their lives, like it did mine.
Q. Wow. How did a guitar save your life?
A. Oh man, my teenage years, I was surrounded by drugs, substance abuse in general, a lot of people were overdosing or committing suicide just because of how [expletive] their lives were. Or they ended up being hauled off to prison. It felt like the walls were closing in.
I failed all through school because my life was kind of in shambles a little bit a lot of the time. Eventually I just dropped out. If it wasn’t for guitar, I wouldn’t have anything else.
Q. Does that inspire your writing at all? I’m thinking of “Dust in a Baggie.”
A. Yeah, you could think of that as an old bluegrass song with a modern twist. The old bluegrass formula is there, but instead of moonshine it’s meth. Because I was born in 1992. And I grew up around that stuff, and my daddy wasn’t a coal miner.
Q. Exactly — that modern twist on traditional. You do that with your audiences, too. Do you find you’ve gotten a younger crowd into bluegrass?
A. Yeah, it’s incredible the age difference I see out there. The other night I saw an old lady out in the crowd singing every word. I’m like “Holy [expletive], old Gloria’s a fan!” Then I see 14-, 15-year-olds. I love seeing teenagers, man. Because those kids are at a rough time in life. I’m almost 30 and just getting over all that.
Q. [Laughs] True. So you grew up playing bluegrass and then got into the metal scene for a while.
A. Bluegrass is what I cut my teeth on. When I was about 11, my dad got me a little red Stratocaster for Christmas, started teaching me about Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, King Crimson. He just schooled me, man. Once I started playing electric guitar, I wanted to play music with people my age, because I only played with old bluegrass dudes.
Q. Your Aunt Mondi gave you the nickname “Billy Strings.” It stuck right away?
A. It didn’t really stick until much later on when she was fixing to die. I went over to see her, she got up and danced and drank a beer, smoked a joint. She said, “[Expletive] it, I’m getting ready to die, this music’s so good, I love you guys, let’s just party.” It was heavy. She died a few days later.
A. So when I was going to an open mic night afterward, I put “Billy Strings” when I signed up. I thought I needed a stage name. I was 17.
Q. How did you get into the jam scene?
A. Honestly, through hanging around with Greensky Bluegrass. I used to be a real “grasshole” — if you didn’t play it proper like Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, it wasn’t right. Those guys snapped me out of that. They taught me about freedom in music, jamming, playing these 10-minute improvisations. I started getting back into the Grateful Dead.
Q. String Cheese Incident inspired you too.
A. That really split my wig. I saw Bill Nershi flat-pick guitar in front of 10,000 people at Red Rocks and I’m going, “What the [expletive]?” Because I flat-pick guitar, and I play for 12 people, and they’re all old!
I had no idea there was this other side of the scene that was colorful and barefoot and organic and earthy and hippi-fied. I love hippie stuff. I’m like, “Damn, you don’t have to wear pomade in your hair and suspenders to play bluegrass?” I can just be myself? My own skater-kid self? I don’t have to pretend to be some kind of mountaineer? That actually works out better for me.