Billy Strings sees you on your phone at his show. And he’s about to make you feel weird about it. Coming off the heels of a monster week at Austin’s SXSW festival, the progressive bluegrass guitarist extraordinaire took a breather before his shows at Pensacola’s Vinyl Music Hall and Suwannee Spring Reunion to chat about his endless touring, how he handles rough crowds, and his band’s embrace of the unknown.
Though Billy’s fearless guitar playing boggles minds on its own, he has locked in a unit of mandolin, upright bass, and banjo that is committed to each other and their crowds in a special way. There’s purposeful playing here, but more importantly, there’s a whole lot of fun - the type of fun that forces you to look at strangers to confirm that yes, we all just witnessed that together. Do not miss this show when it comes to town.
You were immediately surrounded by bluegrass upon birth, but do you think it would have found you if not for your family?
Billy: I wonder. That’s a great question. You could say it’s 50/50. There’s a lot of people born when I was in 1992 that have no idea what the hell bluegrass is. When I think about it, I am grateful to my father for showing me the music. I attribute it to my parents’ influence.
And you still play with him a decent amount, don’t you?
Billy: Absolutely. It’s because of him that I’m out here doing this. I don’t think I would’ve found this bluegrass, at least not to the degree that I’ve fallen in love with it.
Was there ever any pressure in being labeled a protege?
Billy: No. Never. In fact, my parents never pushed me either way. It was more like I wanted to play because my dad was so cool.
Looking at your writing, there’s a lot of darkness in your lyrics, but glimmers of hope shine through. Where does that hope come from?
Billy: Man, that’s a good question, too. Waking up everyday and seeing the sun. Seeing my friends, and hoping for the best. Obviously, you can plan for the worst. It’s positivity. I got a lot of negativity, too, with what I write about. I write about poverty and substance abuse. It’s where I grew up - Small Town America. I write about little tiny towns with little tiny high schools, where kids are snorting pills off their desks.
That authenticity comes through. There’s also an anti-authoritarian, almost us vs. them vibe to a lot of your lyrics and the music backs it up. Where does that sort of writing come from in songs like “On the Line” and “Dealing With Despair”?
Billy: I don’t think of myself as being separate from animals. It is us vs. them, them being people who are in charge and people who are raping the planet. Government and mines and money, and all this fake bullshit instead of what’s really here on a beautiful planet that we’re all living on together. I have strong feelings about the direction of humanity.
As you’re reaching more people, do you find that what you are doing is more purposeful? It sounds like you are on a mission to spread that positivity. Is that on purpose?
Billy: Absolutely. I see how music affects people. They come out to our shows, have a good time with their friends, and smile. That’s important for a lot people who work all week - to just let go. It’s important for me too. When I look out and see somebody get lost in the music and it looks like they’re having a blissful experience, that’s the greatest compliment anyone could ever give me. That’s what satisfies me in a way, knowing that I am spreading positive energy and light.
How much of that energy in the crowd affects you guys on stage?
Billy: 110%. I sometimes think of it that I am only as good as the audience. I can only play as well as the audience can play that night. If people are really into the music and interested in what we’re doing, I can and will play my best. The more that people are into it, the better I play.
How do you power through it when the crowd isn’t as engaged?
Billy: That’s part of being a pro. You have to face those days. There are ups and downs. There are days where you’re playing a nice arena and the next day you’re going to be explaining to some drunk dude why he can’t play your guitar during setbreak.
That’s really happened?
Billy: Oh yeah. Or the harmonica guy - why he can’t come up and play with you. Sorry man, but no.
How do you keep up with the number of shows you’re doing with how physical you are up on stage? It has to take its toll.
Billy: I’m glad someone noticed! I was worried that nobody cared about my well-being. No man, I’m really lazy now that I have so many gigs. Whenever I’m not on stage, I just want to relax and totally zen out as much as I can because I give all my energy to the tour and performances. Sometimes, I stay home from the carnival just so I can relax.
Paul Hoffman from Greensky Bluegrass joked that you never turn down gigs. Do you?
Billy: Ha! Never! No, I don’t have much to do these days with that part of it. I’ve released all control onto my team. Sometimes, I’ll say, hey we really want to do this gig or do we really have to do this gig, depending on what it is.
Do you find any limitations with the current acoustic format as far as sounds you might want to be making but can’t because of the instrumentation?
Billy: These are good questions. Good job. Maybe a little bit. I’m always hoping for this bigger sound, but it is just us four up there. So maybe sometimes if I’m up on stage, I’m just dreaming about this big sound, but it’s just us four up there going “plinky plinky plink”. Maybe I’m just pretending like we have a big sound and trying to come across that way. I do love playing electric guitar, and I do love playing loud, so maybe someday, I will do some gigs with a rock band, but it’s never going to be the main focus.
So if it happens, you envision it being a separate entity?
Billy: Yeah, a side project, or you might see “Billy Strings Electric” on a festival bill. For the most part, this progressive bluegrass is what we’re doing.
Along those same lines, psychedelia has obviously had a huge impact on your sound, but how has it affected your approach to playing and the intention behind it?
Billy: It makes me want to be less mechanical and technical and be more spiritual and soulful. I want to reach deep into my soul and pull out emotions and have them regurgitated through my guitar. That’s what it’s about. And also the freedom of it. Getting into the Grateful Dead and stuff like that. Studying Jerry taught me a freedom in music that I didn’t learn in bluegrass. Bluegrass is really structured and you have your set solos and everyone takes their turn. There are fiddle tunes where everybody knows the melody and where they go. Rarely are we 100% purely jamming - just reading each other’s emotions and going for it. So I’ve found out that I really like doing that more and more now. I really like trying to play stuff where we don’t really know what the hell we are doing, but it sounds cool.
A lot of what you just said there, I think, also speaks to Col. Bruce’s influence on you, even if it was after he passed. Is that the case?
Billy: He’s one of the greatest at those things that I’m talking about. Everything’s out there in the ether. The music. The weirdness. The sounds. The emotions. They’re all out there. You have to reach out there and grab them and spit them out of your guitar somehow. It’s a weird energy thing. People like Col. Bruce and other improvisational jazz players tap into this other realm and spit it out. I don’t really know how to explain it because I don’t fully understand it myself.
It’s obvious the crowd feeds off of how you embrace that unknown.
Billy: We know just as little about what we’re going to do next than what the crowd does.. We’re just as surprised when we land something.
Are you able to take in any shows as a spectator?
Billy: Not as much as I’d like to because usually when I am at a show, I am working in some way. I don’t go to many concerts. Something in the back of my head lately has been telling me that I need to go see more shows as a stress reliever. I want to go see Tedeschi Trucks Band again, along with so much other good stuff going on right now.
Do you ever see people talking in the middle of your shows and if so, what’s the Billy Strings way of telling them to shut the fuck up?
Billy: Play some really weird shit on my guitar and stare directly at them. I do that sometimes if I see someone just looking at their phone. I will play a bad note, something that sounds like shit, just so that person’s like, “Wait, what?!”. And then they’ll notice I’m staring right at them and they’re like, “Oh, fuck, I am busted.”
Called out by the man.
Billy: Totally. I’m not going to get on the mic and tell people what to do, but I’ll play that weird stuff until they notice.
Last question - are you linking up with fiddler John Mailander at Suwannee Spring Reunion?
Billy: Oh, shit!
He’s there all weekend.
Billy: He reached out to me and I am an asshole.
I wouldn’t complain if you made that happen.
Billy: You just reminded me is what you did, that I need to make that happen. So yes, and thank you for the reminder.