As a niche genre, bluegrass doesn’t produce a lot of viral stars, but Billy Strings is taking traditional sounds to the outer limits.
Cover photo courtesy Billy Strings
A lightning-fast, flat-picking guitarist and rising young string slinger in the progressive bluegrass world, Strings has become a wildly popular fixture in acoustic music, selling out theaters and moving to the tops of festival bills at a rapid clip. With a sturdy voice and mesmerizing fret skills, the 26-year-old artist blends respect for bluegrass’ roots, collaborating on stage with legendary predecessors including Del McCoury and David Grisman, with electrifying, rock-driven spontaneity.
Growing up with a bluegrass-playing dad, Strings (real name William Apostol) learned the fundamentals of Bill Monroe’s high-lonesome sound at an early age, but by his teenage years he scratched a rebellious itch by joining a metal band. Now based in Nashville, Strings actually spends most of his time on the road, crisscrossing the country with an acoustic sound that’s blazing new frontiers in the acoustic landscape.
Strings’ debut album, Turmoil & Tinfoil, released in late 2017, is a showcase for the nimble-fingered fret acrobatics by him and his talented band. The record mixes honest front-porch tunes, like the reflective “All of Tomorrow,” with psychedelic string workouts, including the rumbling, “Meet Me at the Creek,” an epic shredder that nearly hits 10 minutes with a series of breakneck solos. It’s a dynamic effort, but really just a snapshot of a Strings live show, where songs are often stretched even longer with improvisational elasticity.
5 More Bands Pushing Bluegrass Forward
The Infamous Stringdusters
This expansive quintet uses slick picking chops as a springboard for improvisational exploration. The band picked up a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for its 2017 effort Laws of Gravity, but the group’s live shows are sculpted more in the vision of the Grateful Dead than Bill Monroe. The Stringdusters released a new studio album, Rise Sun, back in April.
Steep Canyon Rangers
A favorite from the mountains of western North Carolina, Steep Canyon has become well known as the backing band for comedian Steve Martin, but the band has spent nearly two decades honing its own take on bluegrass, featuring polished, high-lonesome singing and earnest lyrics with a hard-driving edge. The group’s latest, album, Out in the Open, was produced by Americana great Joe Henry.
Armed like a traditional string band, this popular five-piece outfit often veers into full-fledged rock tangents. The Michigan-bred band’s new album, All for Money, blends nimble picking with extended jams and dashes of distorted feedback. Founders Paul Hoffman and Dave Bruzza are also impressively introspective songwriters.
First emerging in 2009 as a rare all-female bluegrass outfit, the Nashville-via-Boston, Grammy-nominated quartet has continued to gain momentum with a dynamic sound that mixes string chops with soulful singing. The group’s recently released Butcher Shoppe EP contains a razor-sharp acoustic rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post,” which features lead singer Celia Woodsmith delivering throaty intensity to match the original’s vocals while Kimber Ludiker’s sweet fiddle lines give the staple a pastoral reimagining.
Chatham County Line
One of North Carolina’s most prolific yet underrated string bands, Chatham County Line members wear old-timey suits and play around a single mic, but their sound incorporates a wide range of styles from folk and country to various eras of rock. In the spring the quartet released its eighth studio album, Sharing the Covers, which, as the name suggests, pays tribute to the band’s broad influences with a full set of songs by other artists, including Beck and Wilco.