Fretboards Aflame: An Interview With Billy Strings

There are bluegrass genre purists. Folks who might scoff at something breaking stride with what came before us. An electric instrument in a band? No way! Blending other influences and genres with a traditional cast of instruments? Forget about it. Then there are those who love the genre so much they want to see how far it can truly stretch. A deeper appreciation for music lies in the heart of people like that. Billy Strings falls into the latter camp and we are all a bit more lucky for it. The singer-songwriter just released his debut full length record, Turmoil and Tinfoil, last week and even sitting in my hands for as short a while as it has, it has already risen to the top of the list for best things I have heard this year.

Strings has a way about his approach with these songs. Not necessarily an “I don’t give a fuck about norms” approach, but a grit nonetheless, and that completely works in his favor. Mingling ‘lighting fast arpeggios that may belong coming out a Marshall stack ala a Dimebag Darrell solo more than a dreadnought acoustic’ with a huge respect for the traditional bluegrass his old man instilled in him or tossing a 9 minute song that very well may be “the radio hit” onto the album as the second track. That may seem counterproductive, but its that attitude and laying himself out there for exactly who he is as an artist that makes this record so damn successful. There is an undeniable groove to his music. This isn’t a stale regurgitation of some old songs or chord patterns, this is something new, exciting…and absolutely brilliant.

While Strings may have gained a great deal of notoriety as a fiery paced picker that seems to set his fretboard aflame when he plays, his new record is a whole lot deeper than that. In discussing the songs and writing I saw a songwriter who wants to do more with his music and has a whole hell of a lot to say. Getting to sit down with the guitarist and songwriter I got to see someone who isn’t only incredibly self aware, he is totally aware of the world around him and not afraid to speak about how it makes him feel. In his song “Dealing Despair” off of Turmoil and Tinfoil he straight faced proclaims,”surrender to the evil / do your part to feed the burning flame / you know I don’t want your kingdom / I just want to blow out your brain” and while it may be set to a pretty catchy rhythm and contains some awe inspiring picking, the message he is putting forth is not one to be ignored. Presented in a way that, perhaps, tones it back and makes it easier to swallow, I find it incredibly important for young artists to have a socially conscious voice and Strings is certainly one who is speaking out and being genuine.

I feel exceptionally lucky to have been able to spend some time sitting down and talking with Billy. There is so much promise in his art and his message and seeing what the years will bring for this insanely talented gent is going to be a real treat. It isn’t often that such an enormous amount of talent is paired with such a humble and pensive person. I do believe I have found my new favorite artist.

Enjoy.

 

RLR: Lets start at the beginning. When did you first start playing? When did you first pick up an instrument and what was the reason behind it, musical family, pure curiosity? I know your dad was a big influence.

BS: Yeah, he sings and plays guitar. Because of him, you know I picked it up. Probably when I was about 3 or 4 years old. 4 when I got my first real guitar that actually had strings on it, you know? Yeah my dad is a killer picker and singer and when I was little I wanted to be just like him. 

RLR: What was on the record player (or in the tape deck or on the CD player) when you were growing up at that time?

BS: It was A LOT of Doc Watson. Bill Monroe. Lester and Earl. Larry Sparks. You know it wasn’t until later on my parents sort of introduced me to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Johnny Winter and YES and stuff like that.

RLR: So I am guessing you kind of got started playing as a bluegrass picker before those other influences seeped in. At what point did you realize “oh, I can take these two things, tradition and these other parts, and put them together”?

BS: It was like only a couple of years ago really. But yeah I just cut my teeth on bluegrass and I really love a lot of other music, so.

RLR: How about as far as writing your own songs was concerned. When did that really start for you?

BS: I wrote my first song when I was 16. Really didn’t write anything for a while, maybe a couple of years later I tried to pick up the pencil again, but mostly just played a lot of bluegrass and I played in some metal bands and I wrote the music but I never really had anything to do with the lyrical side of things. So I am still a relatively timid songwriter.

RLR: A big part of why I started doing this whole Red Line thing is that there is a huge pool of talent around New England in roots music. Constantly being recharged with folks coming out of Berklee, some of which you are friends with. No one was really talking about it in terms of publications, so I said “well shit, I should start talking about it”. Trying to foster a community. What was it like for you in terms of community coming up? Bluegrass is a very communal, sharing kind of a genre. You know, the traditions of sharing songs, swapping solos and all that.

BS: Yeah I mean, my dad and his friends were always picking. It was a small group of people, you know. A lot of times it was just me and my dad and Brad Lasko, the banjo player. But sometimes we’d have someone on bass and someone would grab a fiddle and then we would have a whole bluegrass band. A lot of nights it was just my dad and Brad Lasko and me sitting trying to pick with them. 

RLR: Stealing licks?

BS: Yeah. It was definitely a great childhood, man.

RLR: So did you get to attend some of the bluegrass festivals and stuff when you were young on?

BS: Not really, just like Charlotte Bluegrass festival in Michigan and thats pretty much it. I had no idea that there was like High Sierras and stuff like that. I had no idea that there were these big music festivals. I thought a music festival was 300 people, a couple of campers and nobody is actually listening to the person on the stage because they are all pickin’ in the campground. That’s what my idea of a festival was until a couple of years ago when I learned about String Cheese Incident and Greensky and the Stringdusters and all these bands with banjos that are frickin selling out Red Rocks, you know?

RLR: How about now, today, in terms of community. Have you found a strong one around your music now?

BS: Big time. Yeah in Nashville. Strong community there. Strong community all over the scene. You know? Wherever we are. Its just a big family. We all take care of each other, we all support each other. I just put out an album and so many members from so many different bands have shared it. From The Stray Birds to the Flatbelly‘s , Molly Tuttle and Greensky and I just have so many great friends who are also great musicians. I do the same stuff for their albums. Share it, promote it and we just try to help each other out.

RLR: So lets talk about the new record. One song off it that is particularly poignant is “Dealing Despair”. Do you think its important for artists, songwriters to voice their opinions or concerns on political or social things nowadays? Stuff that is wrong in society?

BS: I would say don’t be afraid to sing what you wrote. You might write a song that you don’t want to sing, but you might write a song that you have to. I was really pissed off when I wrote that song. It was shortly after another unarmed black man had be shot down by police. I just felt like the world was so sick. People are fucking lost. I still feel like that. Its embarrassing to be a human on this planet sometimes.

RLR: I agree man, its scary. How about “Meet Me At The Creek”? Thats quite a long extended jam on that track. What was that decision like? Was it just like “fuck it, this is what this song needs”? Or was it a tougher decision, that a longer track might not be as radio friendly?

BS: Well the first take, it was 14 minutes and we had to trim it down, you know? Me and the other co-producer Glen Brown, we were like “yeah, that’s not gonna work. That’s too long”. So we had to trim it down to like 9 minutes or something. But yeah when I wrote that song, that was the whole idea behind it. I was like ‘this song is going to have a big, extended improvisational jam where every night we play it on stage or every other night, whenever we play it it is gonna be different every time’. And it is. Its always kind of a little different.

RLR: How much of this record is “you” vs. you telling a narrative about a character? Is there any split or is there a bit of your own introspection in each of the songs? 

BS: No, I think its all pretty much me. You know “While I’m Waiting Here”…

RLR: Yeah, that was the track I was thinking of.

BS: Yeah, you know, its a fictional story. As well as “All of Tomorrow”, I mean I’m not going through a breakup right now or anything and I wasn’t when I wrote that song. But I did use my own, real emotional past to draw inspiration for it. Yeah, its all me man. That’s my heart on my sleeve right there. That album. Like I said, I am sort of a timid songwriter, yet, these are a batch of songs that I finally was able to put on a record and show people. I don’t have many more. There’s “Dust in a Baggie” and a couple other tunes like that. I am still working on growing this part of the music. 

RLR: Were there any surprises in studio where you brought a song in one way and it just went a bit wild and developed into something you didn’t initially hear in terms of arrangements?

BS: Yeah “While I’m Waiting Here” didn’t always have that big spacey jam in the middle. That was sort of an idea that happened in the studio and we ended up keeping. “Living Like An Animal”, I had no real idea of what I was doing there. I had these lyrics and I had somewhat of a melody, but I really wanted to just let that song be sort of free form. Where we just like jammed. Jamming in the key. I was on the banjo and Mad Cat was on the harmonica and we just kind of let the song flow. Instead of saying “ok, lets do this part and then lets do that part”. We just said lets start the song and lets just feel it. Let it flow and let it move through us. It kind of turned out that way. You can hear it. Its not written, its just “out there”.

RLR: So I don’t keep you too long before the show, just what’s next for Billy Strings? Besides touring your ass off?

BS: Definitely a lot of touring my ass off. I’m working on songs for another record. I’ve got this batch of tunes, at least 4 or 5 songs. Rough batches, rough drafts. Its all about just struggle. Whether its you are actually living on the street or you actually have a house but you still struggle to pay the bills. You can’t afford to put gas in your car so you can get to work so you can afford to put gas in your car. You know? Small town America. Thats where I come from. Thats what my writing is inspired by and I think the next album is going to be sort of a concept about all of that. Just about struggle, man. Hopefully with that I will be able to throw a party. I have this dream that I want write that album and then have a release party or a release tour where I raise money for the homeless, or you bring a can of soup and thats your ticket for the show. So its more than just an album, its like a good deed. 

RLR: A movement.

BS: Yeah.

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