Article by Miles Hurley
Photograph by Will Hanza
Bluegrass guitarist and songwriter Billy Strings is currently making his way through a busy season of touring. Last week, he and his band, which consists of mandolinist Jarrod Walker, banjo player Billy Failing, and bassist Royal Masat, played a tremendous gig to a packed room at NYC’s Knitting Factory. Featuring a sit-in from Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jacob Jolliff, a Led Zeppelin teaser jam, and more, suffice to say it was a strong night for the bluegrass quartet, among many recent strong nights. As Strings eloquently makes clear in the following interview with The Poke Around, such strength, both musical and otherwise, comes from the values both put into and gotten out of hitting the road hard, and working hard. Amidst the highs and lows of his crazy schedule, he took a bit of time to discuss musical friends, songwriting, and more.
Can you tell me about last night’s show at Knitting Factory? How’d it go, how’d it feel?
Yeah! I think it went great. We had a crowded show, and for us, it’s really cool to show up in Brooklyn and have a full crowd, no matter what the size of the room is. It’s really awesome to see that, and also to see some familiar faces. You know, there’s a huge scene as far as musicians. There’s a lot of really heavy musicians in Brooklyn, and a good handful of musicians that I know from around the scene were there last night. My buddy Alwyn, from Leftover Salmon, was there, and Jake Jolliff from YSMB came and sat in with us, my buddy Mike Robinson who plays with Jeff Austin was there, and my buddy Christian who’s a great flat picker. It was just so cool that all our buddies came out to see us play.
Does that inspire you, or make you more nervous at all, when musician friends show up to watch?
I think it’s both, it’s a yin and yang. It’s like, ‘Oh shit, homie’s out in the audience, I’m gonna be on top of my stuff.’ It encourages you in a way. I remember a time where we were on stage, I look over my shoulder and Chris Thile’s standing there watching our whole show. I just thought, ‘Alright, don’t look over there again.’ I mean, whether he enjoyed it or not, that didn’t totally necessarily matter, but I was just thinking ‘Gosh, I suck,’ haha.
My favorite of the Brooklyn scene has always been Michael Daves. You just missed it, usually Tuesdays or Mondays most weeks he he hosts the best bluegrass jam sessions.
Aw man, at Rockwood, right? I need to see some of that. A favorite of mine too. And I would love to go and play with him some time. I hope I get to meet him and pick some tunes, I love his playing.
So I read recently a comment from you about never expecting to become a bandleader. Now that you’ve been doing exactly that for awhile, how do you feel about the role?
I’ve definitely had to figure it out. It’s taken awhile to learn how to…allow, actually, instead of lead. How to not be a bandleader. The art of being a bandleader without being a bandleader. The art of being somebody’s boss without being a dick. It’s a tightrope, and it’s hard because it’s such a personal thing, this touring. We live in a van together, and we are home an average of five days a month. I mean, we’re out on tour two hundred days a year. So, my band, I know their personalities better than I know anybody. We’ve spent so much time together that, it’s basically a family. It’s like hopping in a car for a family vacation for six weeks, and it’s always just the long drive there. You would have a spat with your brothers, being crammed in together in a van for six weeks. I mean, god, I’d kill my brother if you crammed us in together for that long, hahaha.
But it’s really taught me a lot about myself, you know? How to step back and reflect on things. Before you lash out at somebody, you learn to step back and think, ‘Hang on, is this person doing something wrong or am I just too stressed out?’ It’s really a wonderful thing, it’s taught me so much about myself, and I’m still learning, every day. We’re learning how to make this work, it’s like a relationship. There’s like eight of us on this team, more including management and publicity and all that, and we’re all a tight family. Communication is the key.
As far as when we’re on stage, I think I’ve learned how to, instead of leading everybody, or feel like I’m driving the train, to just ride on that train. While I am the bandleader, it is my band, if you think about it like that, it doesn’t work as well. When I think about the word band, it means band of brothers, family. And that’s what I want. I don’t want to just be some front man who every couple of months has a brand new musician backing them up, and it doesn’t matter really who’s in the background. Because that’s when you can make good music, when you have the same people for a long time. We play thousands of gigs together, and have learned to really love each other, and that’ll show through the music, you know? But I’m still learning, like I said. It’s a wild ride.
So, in terms of that communication: I know some bands get into discussing how shows went after the fact, some bands totally avoid it. Where do you fall on that?
There was a point in time where after almost every show, we would talk for awhile. Nowadays, we’re getting to that point where we just go out and rock it as best we can, and that’s good enough. When we get back to the green room, we only discuss stuff if there was something rough. If it was a great show, we’re just gonna be like, “F*** yeah, that was awesome!”
One thing we’ve done a couple of times that I’ve learned I don’t like is to do it before the gig. A couple of weeks ago, we were playing somewhere and we started talking about the tempo of this song, and we play this song all the time. But we started messing around with it and I think that threw me off. Because when we got to that song in the show, we were thinking about it so much that we weren’t just up there jamming, doing our thing. We were thinking too hard, and weren’t allowing ourselves to just play music. We’re trying to find time to rehearse, and also I’m trying to find time to write. But like I said, being home five days a month…and I need to be alone when I write, I really do.
So to get into writing, you need that special headspace that alone time gives?
It’s more about…I can’t actually open up my mouth and sing nonsense loud, if there’s somebody around. And a lot of times when I’m writing that’s kind of what it is. I’m pacing around my house, trying to come up with something. If there’s somebody home, I’d be whispering, because I’d be embarrassed. Once I know there’s nobody there, then I can actually belt it out, and even if it’s not a song yet and I’m just singing la la la la, I can really go for it. I’ve got this eight day retreat coming up, I’m gonna go up to this little place in Pennsylvania that we stay at, if we’re driving from, say, Kalamazoo to Delfest in Maryland. We usually stay at this place that’s along Lake Eerie. It’s a little AirBnB, and they have a kayak there. I’m gonna be totally alone for eight days and tool around on the lake, and do my thing.
Do ideas come to you on the road a lot? Or is that alone time also reserved for generating ideas?
Usually I’ll try and keep track of every little idea that comes, but it’s hard sometimes. I’ve got a lot of voice memos on my phone, and it might even be just some little sentence that later on, I’ll think, ‘What the hell was I even thinking?’ I remember the last one one I put in there. For some reason, when I was driving I just thought of this sentence that went like, ‘Had to put another notch in my belt today.’ Meaning like, I’m getting skinny, like times are hard. That just popped into my head, and I wrote it down. But man, then later on I pull that shit out and I’m thinking, ‘what the hell is that supposed to mean?’ I don’t know how true it is, but somebody told me a story about Kendrick Lamar, that his producer is on call at all times. I mean like, 4 AM. If Kendrick wakes up and he’s got an idea, he can call up homie and be like, ‘Hey, jot this down.’
Well Lamar just won a Pulitizer, so maybe there’s something to that.
Man, he did? That’s awesome.
Since you mention him, can you tell me about some other artists outside of the bluegrass world that influence you these days?
Sure, well I’m sitting in the van, and I see my iPad here. Let’s see what I’ve got on here: The Allman Brothers, Black Sabbath, Bob Marley, Cryptopsy—that’s a Canadian death metal band, that’s some of my favorite shit, specifically their album None So Vile, and the first album, Blasphemy Made Flesh. What else, let’s see: Edgar Winter Band, the White Trash album. Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, I’ve got some Phish. Randy Newman! F***ing Randy Newman, he’s the man. He is the man! His Dark Matter album, his latest one, it blew my mind. Sturgill Simpson, Tedeschi Trucks Band, The White Stripes, little bit of everything. I like Yes a lot, I like a lot of that old prog stuff, King Crimson is freaking awesome. Grateful Dead, that’s huge right now, I love Jerry Garcia. I love the freedom they had, and the way that Jerry was able to break down walls and borders in his own mind to create freedom from music.
Nice. Lately I’ve been appreciating in particular the way Garcia soloed.
Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about, that thoughtful stuff. That’s the real, true feeling in music. We’ve been having fun having these improvisational moments in the show, where we don’t know what’s gonna happen until we go there. And then we get there with the audience’s help. And that closes that line, between us and the audience. It’s just everybody here together, that’s where we’re trying to take it.
Have you been finding that your band has taught you some things, in terms of that kind of improvisation?
Oh yeah, those guys blow my mind every night, man. I’m really lucky to play music with them. I mean, Jarrod Walker was on stage wit Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs when he was like twelve years old. He and Sierra Hull were in the same kind of crew there. Royal Masat, before he was out with me, he was out with Warren Haynes, over in Germany and all over. Billy Failing’s been in bands since he was a little shit, high school or middle school. They’ve blown me away with more than just their musical abilities but their dedication to be out on the road. This is a dream that we are working our asses off towards, because we see something tangible up ahead that we really want. Just…a good life, and to be able to keep doing what we’re doing. But the way we’re doing this right now, there’s no way we could do this forever, it would kill us. We’re trying to work really hard right now, so that later on we could pull back the reigns just a little bit, and have a couple days off. It’s a lot of work right now, but we’re grateful for all of it. This is my dream, this is what I’ve always wanted, since as long as I can remember. Since I was like, three years old.
It’s definitely important for fans to appreciate all that goes into making a two hour set happen. I feel that in the bluegrass community especially, with the kind of following that bands like yours and Greensky and the Stringdusters have, I think they appreciate how hard you guys go each night, and how much heart you bring, on long tours.
There’s just something about it, those that have the drive and passion for it, we can go out for months on end, and walk out on stage and just swing for the fences, man. Just give it everything you have and more. I mean, there’s nights where I’m walking out on stage, and I feel like, ‘I don’t know how I’m even going to do this, I feel dead, I feel so tired.’ But then, once we get three songs in, once that crowd starts cheering, its like, alright guys! Let’s rock it out! Then, by the end of the show, I’m on cloud nine, I could run a marathon.
And also, there’s been so many people that have come to us, through this music, that have told us that we helped them. And they’ve helped us, we’ve made some serious friends. There’s people that follow us around, and that really find joy in doing that. It’s just so beautiful, really. We’ve got this one friend, Uncle John. He’s our best friend, now. He makes all our tie dyes. But, he lost his dear wife about a year and a half ago. After he lost her, he just decided, ‘F*** it, I’m gonna follow this band around.’ And he’s been to like sixty or seventy of our shows in a year, or something crazy like that. And he’s become our best friend, and helped us a lot. Like earlier, we were touching on the stresses and personality differences of being out on the road, but he’s such a mediator. He’s our spiritual advisor, man. And so many other people have that same kind of situation. You start traveling around the country, and you see the same people in the crowd, the same few faces in the front row. These people are on tour, too! They took a week off from work to follow us and see us play for a week. That blows my mind, it’s amazing.
In terms of musical contemporaries, who’s touring out there that you’ve loved the shows of, or haven gotten to share a room with?
It’s such a tight knit community. Everybody from Lindsay Lou, to The Stray Birds, and Molly Tuttle. Molly Tuttle, she’s my roommate and I just have to give her a little props because I see her working her ass off, man. She gets back from a tour in freakin’ Sweden or something, after an eighteen hour flight, gets home, goes right to her room and starts practicing. I mean, she’s driven, and she writes so many amazing songs. Look out for Molly Tuttle, because she’s on her f***ing way. She’s about to blow up. Tyler Childers, too, he’s another fella I ran into recently, and I just loved his show. Along the same lines, Colter Wall is another one of my favorites that’s coming up. He’s got the most amazing voice you’ve ever heard. It’s just really low, and sounds like he’s been out on the plains drinking rattlesnake juice.
Billy Strings’ tour picks back up this week, with a show this Thursday, May 10, at Lincoln, Theatre in Raleigh, NC. Immediately following that over next weekend will two sets at the highly anticipated Aiken Bluegrass Festival on May 11 and 12. To learn more, head to https://www.billystrings.com.