Brooklyn’s beloved record store and music venue, Rough Trade, recently enjoyed a brief glimpse into the future of bluegrass as flatpicking prodigy William Apostol, otherwise known as “Billy Strings,” took the stage with his Nashville-based band (which includes Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on bass, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin). Initially, those unfamiliar with Strings might’ve assumed they were in the wrong place—at 24, he appears more like a skateboarder in Washington Square than an established bluegrass musician.
Any reservations were undoubtedly cast aside as the band quietly picked up their instruments and began playing. Immediately closing his eyes with a devilish grin, Strings and his bandmates embarked on what would prove to be a rich evening of traditional bluegrass infused with futuristic psychedelia. His highly anticipated new album, Turmoil and Tinfoil, was released earlier that morning, and the band opened the evening with the title track. That many audience members were singing along to a newly released song off his first full-length album speaks volumes to the reputation Strings has already established. It is as though this youthful musician has already been deemed an old, wise friend of the community. A closer look at Strings and his past epitomizes the old saying that “It’s not the years in your life that counts, but the life in your years.” There is a great deal of life in the years of this humble individual.
Raised in the rural Michigan town of Ionia, William Apostol came of age in a world filled with music. In fact, he can’t seem to remember a time without it. Local lore has it that his mother’s water broke while attending a family birthday party, where there (of course) was live music. “I think whoever drove her to the hospital was a little buzzed up,” he recalls. “So I came right into the party.” His father, Terry Barber, is a longtime local bluegrass picker who nurtured his son’s appetite for music at an early age, introducing him to Doc Watson before he could walk. “My dad taught me how to tie my shoelaces and put strings on the guitar all in the same week,” Strings remembers. “He was always the life of the party… I wanted to be just like him.”
In just a few short years, Strings was showing up at local VFW halls and jamborees to play traditional folk and bluegrass with the area’s adult musicians. Years later, as a teenager, he bought his first electric guitar and unearthed the classic sounds of Hendrix, Zeppelin and Sabbath. He and his friends were hooked; they soon started a metal band and began throwing parties for other students. “We were actually bringing in a little scene to Ionia—a little metal scene—and it was so fun. That’s how I cut my teeth; I cut my teeth in music with bluegrass, but I cut my teeth performing with metal.”
As they transition out of the opening song, there’s an unmistakably razor-sharp edge to the improvisation that follows. Futuristic, dark, even apocalyptic, yet simultaneously traditional and nostalgic; the interplay between Strings and his band members is eerily unique. “This next song was inspired by growing up in a prison town,” Strings explains to the crowd, as the band goes into another song from the new album, “While I’m Waiting Here.” Later, “Dust in a Baggie” relays a similar tale of a friend imprisoned for amphetamines. While lyrically haunting, the song is surprisingly upbeat and certainly a crowd favorite for those familiar with Strings’ intense performances.
As middle school came to a close, Strings’ adolescence grew darker. He remembers watching in horror as close friends were lost to drug addiction, an issue that continues to riddle small-town America. “Times were tough back then. I dropped out of high school and wasn’t in a good place,” he reflected. But then, music pulled him back in, transporting him to a time before his close friends were suffering addiction, prison sentences, and suicide. One day, as Billy tells it, “I heard bluegrass music again, and it gave me déjà vu. It was like a portal back to my childhood.” After graduating high school in 2011, he moved north to Traverse City in hopes of escaping his drug-ridden hometown to pursue bluegrass. He quickly befriended the veteran mandolin player Don Julin, and the duo performed frequent local shows and toured nationally as Julin became an important mentor for Strings, who was then still in his late teens.
After a few years of playing with Julin, Strings decided it was time to move to Nashville, which according to him, “ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” And indeed, he’s thrived in East Nashville’s burgeoning music scene. “The community is insane. I mean, throw a rock and you’re going to hit a damn good fiddle player.” He fondly describes the scene as being rooted in camaraderie, support and spontaneity. “On any given night, say on a Tuesday, we might say, ‘Okay, let’s make tacos and pick at Lindsay’s house.’ And I’ll be hanging out with members of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, The Stray Birds, Tess and the Talkbacks, Molly Tuttle, and all of these people just in one night… The other night we had at least 12 people in a room.” Living in such close quarters with other musicians has helped Strings become more willing to take risks. “It’s been great for me to break that barrier of being too nervous to show somebody a song,” he explained. “That’s what’s so cool about it; it has encouraged me to break out of my shell.” And break out he has.