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Billy Strings Talks 'Tinfoil & Turmoil,' Doc Watson, Bluegrass, Heavy Metal & More
In the early days of bluegrass music, the guitar was mostly used for rhythm purposes, with the distinct exception of an occasional G-run riff made famous by Lester Flatt beginning in the 1940s. The guitar was not the instrument of choice then when it came time to play solos.
That began to change in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s when musicians such as George Shuffler, Doc Watson, Clarence White, Dan Crary, Tony Rice and others opened up the possibilities of the guitar as a lead instrument. Their work featured mid-song solo breaks that were performed with beauty and fire, taste and precision. Since then, each following bluegrass generation has had their guitar heroes who have furthered the cause of the guitar in the genre. One of the current masters of the instrument is Billy Strings.
We caught up with Strings right before the 2018 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards show held in Raleigh, NC, on Sept. 27. Strings was nominated for both the Emerging Artist of the Year nod as well as the coveted IBMA Guitarist of the Year Award. Strings feels very fortunate to have been nominated in the latter category with other great guitarists such as Kenny Smith, Josh Williams, Bryan Sutton and Molly Tuttle. Tuttle ended up winning the honor.
How did you hear about the IBMA nomination?
I pay attention to what's going on over there, and I was watching the Livestream when they announced it and I couldn't believe it, really.
Well, why not? You're rocking the six-string, man.
Aw, yeah, I don't know, man. Those other people that are on that list are [players] I look up to and respect highly. Bryan Sutton and Molly Tuttle and Kenny Smith - those are some great guitar players and I can't say too much about what I do or whatever it is. It's a great honor, it really is, just to even be mentioned in the same breath as those others.
I remember you played Sugar Grove, Doc Watson's other festival and that's all I heard about, how good you were.
That was a really special gig for me too, you know, cause I love Doc. I was raised on Doc's music. My dad, he taught me a bunch of that stuff when I was growing up, all of that, all of those songs… Because I grew up in Michigan, I never got a chance to go to North Carolina and meet Doc. And when I got a little older, I started traveling, and eventually I made it to that Sugar Grove festival, and I got to meet Doc's brother and his family. Everybody that was there was friends with him. It was a trip for me, because Doc, in my book, he's huge.
I know what you mean. And Doc's brother, David, looks just like him.
Yeah, he showed me Doc's bolo knife. He had Doc's pocketknife on him.
There are a few musicians that have gone to heavy metal or punk rock, and have ended up in bluegrass. How did your musical background help you, and what are some similarities between these styles?
When I started out playing music, I learned playing bluegrass when I was young and then eventually, when I was in middle school, I got an electric guitar and I wanted to start playing with people that were my age. I played with my dad and his friends, and I was just a little kid and they were adults. I never really made music with people that were like into the same stuff that I was into, like playing video games and s***.
So I started playing in metal bands. That's how I learned how to perform. I learned how to play music with my dad playing bluegrass and listening to Doc Watson. But I learned how, when I was on stage for the first few times, I was in a metal band and that kind of energy just stuck.
Well, I know Doc is a hero to you, but are you hip to the evolution of the guitar in bluegrass music? When Bill Monroe lead the first-ever bluegrass band in the 1940s, guitars weren't doing lead solos. Then, players like George Shuffler, Doc Watson and Clarence White began to break new guitar ground. Did those innovators have an influence on you as well?
Yeah, of course. Tony Rice and Norman Blake and all those cats. I listened to all that stuff. Clarence White, of course. An icon. And Tony Rice, too, man. I never got the chance to see him play either.
So how are you influenced by those guys and still create your own style?
I think that's what Bill Monroe would want, to take what he started and what he did with the banjo and the mandolin, fiddle and bass, and use bluegrass as the structure to help create your own sound. I think that's what he did with bluegrass. He learned the blues from Arnold Shultz, and then he mixed it with the fiddle tunes and stuff because he knew. It's like making fiddle tunes lonesome. That's how he made bluegrass. It's like the blues, and mixing the blues notes in there and making that stuff sound sad, and then having those fiddles just rip, just like on the old standard fiddle tunes. Beautiful stuff.
Well, I'm fascinated by Arnold Shultz, who was a black guitarist, and I think he might have played fiddle, too, that Monroe knew and played with as a kid, yet there were no recordings ever made of him. That is both frustrating and amazing to think about.
Oh man, I know. But I imagine that's where Bill learned the blues and at least picked up some of that phrasing. You think bluegrass, that's what I think of. It's like fiddle tunes and then a mixture of really heartbreaking sound.
You can hear that mixture on your new album, Turmoil & Tinfoil. How would you describe your music?
I think that's just it. It comes from everywhere. Like I said, I stand with bluegrass and I tend to listen to everything from Jimi Hendrix to psychedelic bands like the Grateful Dead and stuff like that. I'm just trying to go everywhere with it. I think it's more of a progressive bluegrass sound with a psychedelic feel.
Sounds good to me. What's up next for you?
I'm on the road 24-7, brother. I'm just touring and playing gigs and more and more people are coming out and I think that's it, man. I've got my lifestyle. I just live on the road and these people, all my friends at the festival, that's my family. I live out here on the road, man, but I accept that. I love it.