Billy Strings Talks Music Roots, Grandfather’s Prison-Made Guitar, Life On The Road, & More

[Editor’s Note & Preface: Originally published June 2018. This was one of the most memorable interviews for me. I was alone working a shift at a small Nashville wine and liquor store during the day, and I’d scheduled the phone interview with Billy at his convenience because this was far more important than selling Titos. When the time came, I simply locked the door, put up a hand-markered “Be Back In 15 Minutes” sign, and went back to the boss’s “office” to call and record. I sat huddled in a small messy room surrounded by various booze bottles, and had a great casual chat with Billy. Sometimes you just need to prioritize accordingly.]

Legend has it, Billy Strings’ mother’s water broke at a picking session while at her father’s birthday party, and the rest was history.

Before Strings knew what Sesame Street was, he was getting a feel for his finger work on the neck of a guitar. At a young age, his father instilled the power and passion of music in him, and from then on, his path to create smoke from the speed and ferocity of his finger pickin’ was crystal clear. And as Strings matured, he soon developed a commanding and poignant vocal delivery to accompany his stellar playing.

Strings has cemented himself as one of the busiest and most talented up and comers in bluegrass music today. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone published an article on him titled “Bluegrass Prodigy Billy Strings Plots 2018 Spring Tour,” and also crowned him one of the Top Ten New Country Artists to Know in 2017, which you can check out HERE.

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This Michigan native has played on stage with legendary artists like Del McCoury, David Grisman, Sam Bush, and many more, while also having been on tour with acts like Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, and The Infamous Stringdusters. It’s without question Strings is among the top tier performers within the bluegrass, roots, and Americana community.

Strings was kind enough to take some time in the thick of his 200+ show tour to hop on a phone call to discuss his roots, his grandfather’s prison-made guitar, life on the road, and much more. So without further adieu…

Music Mecca: Do you remember the moment when you were like, “Okay, to hell with math and science, I’ve officially found my calling in playing guitar.”

Billy Strings: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean that was before I was in math and science class. My dad is an awesome guitar player and singer, and he started me out real young. I was only three or four when I started strummin’ on my little guitar. It was really encouraging to have my dad – who was just killin’ it – singing at all these parties and playing for friends who would come over, and I saw that as a young kid and I just went with it. My dad just really inspired me to play.

MM: Do you remember the first song you learned to play?

BS: Yeah, it was “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I used to play it on one string.

MM: What was your introduction to bluegrass music?

BS: My dad was playing bluegrass, and he was showing me a lot of Doc Watson, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and all the classic stuff. Larry Sparks, Jimi Hendrix- you know, some King Crimson. He showed me all sorts of stuff, but early on it was bluegrass. Once I got a little older, he figured I was old enough to hear Black Sabbath.

“So he built it in prison, and a lot of the parts had to be smuggled in. the volume knobs on the guitar were the knobs off a radio from an old Oldsmobile… I mean this thing has enormous mojo.”

MM: Aside from music, do you have a hobby or place you frequent that you do or go to that contributes to your musical inspiration? Fishing, hiking, maybe disc golf that kind of thing?

BS: Well I like to skateboard. I’m standing outside Premier Skate Shop in Grand Rapids right now. I’m actually going to buy my girlfriend a board. The other day we were in Nashville, we went to grab a burger, and she took my second board, and she did pretty damn good on that thing, and started talking about how she wants to get one. We can skate around town together and that’ll be fun, ya know?

MM: Recently you posted a picture of a badass guitar that your grandfather had made in prison. Did you know him at all? Was he the music pioneer of the family?

BS: In a way he was, yeah. He played and had instruments around, but he was more of a mechanic. He worked on cars and was a race car driver. He was really an outlaw, man. He would, you know, bring moonshine up from Kentucky and sell that shit in Lansing in the sixties. He whittled a guitar down in Jackson, Michigan, and it’s frickin’ incredible. The body is just so cool.

[At this point in the phone call, a fire truck goes by on his end, and his mom beeps in, because life happens during crucial moments]

MM: If and when you get it up and running, do you foresee taking it on tours or keeping it somewhere safe?

BS: Hopefully I can take it occasionally, but you know, I don’t really play electric guitar very much on the road. Only when Leftover Salmon wants me to sit in. I carry an electric guitar on me just in case. I brought that guitar to my buddy Dave Johnson in Nashville, Tennessee, and he builds scale model guitars. He’s a great luthier that I think is really gonna do a great job. We’re gonna put some hot pickups in it and get that thing working- you know, get that fret board taken care of and get the neck ready to go. I’m gonna resuscitate that guitar back from the dead.

So he built it in prison, and a lot of the parts had to be smuggled in from my great-grandpa. For instance, the volume knobs on the guitar were the knobs off a radio from an old Oldsmobile. My great grandpa worked at the GM plant in Michigan. So he would go visit my grandpa in prison and bring him some knobs and say, “Okay here are a couple knobs you asked me for.” And I may be a little biased of course but man, I’ve never heard of a guitar being built in prison before. I mean this thing has enormous mojo.

MM: So you’re on a massive tour this year, and I see you just announced fall dates. I’m sure each show brings new excitement, but does The Ryman show the 28th excite you the most?

BS: Oh man it’s like a huge dream. That’s the Mother Church! It’s going to be crazy. Opening up for The Del McCoury Band, and man just what an honor.

MM: So last year you released your album, Turmoil and Tinfoil, and it was received with rave reviews. I know it’s soon after, but do you have the gears in motion towards a sophomore album or are you just focusing on tour?

BS: I’m in that train of thought where I’m in the early stages of writing and thinking about where we’re going to record, and I’m talking to somebody about producing it, and we’re in the early stages of working on the next one. And I’m really excited about that, ya know? We’re playing so many gigs it’s hard to even find time to write, but man we’re just so lucky to be out here doing this.

MM: What other genres of music do you really enjoy but don’t play?

BS: Well, lately I’ve been listening to some Choro, some Brazilian music. It’s really crazy technical, and it’s hard for me to even wrap my head around it. There’s no way I could play it. I learned about Choro from a fella I used to play with. It’s really got me interested in that kind of stuff. Also listening to a lot of Grateful Dead. In the van, while we’re going down the road, my banjo player Billy Failing and bass player Royal Masat, they have been listening to a lot of Corey Henry. Corey Henry and The Funk Apostles I think they’re called. He’s a brilliant musician who serves a higher purpose, man. He used to be in the band Snarky Puppy. Great musician.

MM: If you weren’t playing music, what could you see yourself pursuing?

BS: I guess I would still do something entertainment based, whether it’s movies or music or whatever. If I wasn’t playing the music, I sure would like to be involved in the production of it. I would run sound, or be on stage wrapping cables, helping people on and off stage. I guess something along those lines.

[Billy’s band consists of Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on bass, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin.]


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