An Unlikely Duo Take on Traditional Bluegrass at Break-Neck Speed

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Cervantes’ Other Side - July 23
Wildflower Pavilion - July 25
RockyGrass - July 26

 

By Brian F. Johnson

There are a million temptations that can take a person to the edge, and finding a path back from the abyss — that lifeline to cling to — can be darn near impossible for many.

But for Billy Strings, the road back from the brink was under his feet the whole time.

Strings grew up in Ionia, Michigan, home to the state’s Corrections Department Reform-atory. From a very early age he played rhythm guitar to his father’s flat-picking, learning bluegrass classics in untold numbers. But at the age of 11 he got an electric guitar for Christmas and his life started to take a turn toward a darker side. “I wanted to play music with kids my age. My dad and I and his buddies were always playing music at my house or down at the park, but I wanted to play with kids and nobody around Michigan — at least were I’m from — knew anything about bluegrass. So I got into playing death metal and heavy metal with them I guess to fit into the reindeer games,” Strings said, during a recent interview with The Marquee. “As a pre-teen and a teenager I was rebellious. I didn’t care about school very much and I dropped out and dabbled with things. Some of my friends were doing some sketchy things and I was too. So I had my share of substance abuse issues and I lost some friends to things like overdoses and suicide or prison.”

But in his late teens, after he finally did graduate high school a year late, Strings secured a job in northern Michigan at a hotel in Traverse City and when he moved north to take the job it was with a clean slate to start to try to turn things back around. “When I came back to bluegrass it was sort of like an epiphany. I had this realization of ‘Why am I playing heavy metal music when bluegrass makes me cry and laugh,’” Strings said.

The picker, who always carried a guitar with him, fell into the job in Traverse City and it wasn’t long before Strings met the other picker in town, a man old enough to be his father, who had carved his own niche as a musician since the late 1970s and had written the book “Mandolin for Dummies.”

“So these Traverse City people, it’s like they had never heard bluegrass before because they sort of flipped out when I went up and started playing like Doc Watson and stuff. Then Don came to one of my shows and said ‘Hey man, we should pick sometime.’ He ended up riding his bike over to my house and we played a couple songs, ‘Long Journey Home,’ ‘Beaumont Rag’ and whatever and then a couple weeks later I got a call from Don and we went and got a gig, and then we got two gigs, and now we’ve been playing 200 shows a year for two years.”

What Julin and most everyone sees in Strings is a rock-solid, feverishly tempoed and charismatic guitar player, who also has a classic high lonesome voice. Whether it came from playing with his father as a boy, or if playing lightning-speed metal music helped to train his insanely quick fingers, doesn’t matter. What matters is that Strings plays well, damn well, and together he and his unlikely band mate harken back to first-generation bluegrassers who played the music with precision at break-neck speeds.

But Strings is quick to admit that it’s not because they practice. In fact, he and Julin come from the school of barely rehearsing, and never actually practicing. “Everything we learn together has been learned live on a stage. Even in the early days, when we would go play a gig, we didn’t have to practice and work out arrangements. We just went out and picked. Early on we were at a point where it’d be like ‘Hey Don, this song is in A, this is what you need to know and then we’d 1, 2, 3 go! We listen to each other as we play and a lot of the time it’s all spur of the moment.”

Strings humbly, with an aww-shucks kinds of approach, said that it’s been so much play and so little work in fact, that he sometimes wonders how he and Julin — as well as their recently added bass player Kevin Gills — are even playing the level of gigs that they have been offered. “We haven’t taken time and honed a sound or anything, and I feel like I don’t even know how we’re playing all of these great gigs, like RockyGrass and stuff like that. We’re not a band that is at that level yet because we are really just out there having fun. It’s a really strange thing to me, because I don’t know how to read music. I don’t know anything about music theory. I’ve learned by ear my whole life. A lot of times I don’t even know what key we’re in if we’ve changed chords a couple of times.”

But Strings doesn’t need to know the how, or even the why, all he needs to do is keep picking and letting bluegrass do the rest. “Bluegrass lead me away from my previous life,” he said. “There’s no music like bluegrass music to me. It’s where my heart and soul are.”

 

Billy Strings and Don Julin

Cervantes’ Other Side

July 23

 

Wildflower Pavilion

July 25

 

RockyGrass

July 26

 

Go If You Dig:

  • Doc Watson
  • Tony Rice
  • Peter Rowan
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