Bluegrass phenom Billy Strings to play at Wilkes-Barre’s F.M. Kirby Center
At only 25, Billy Strings, with his blistering instrumentation, classically rich voice and old-soul lyricism, is already staking his claim among the bluegrass elite.
In support of his debut solo album, “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” which was released in September, the Nashville, Tenn.,-based phenom will perform at 8 p.m. Monday at the F.M. Kirby Center in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Strings, whose record was met with critical acclaim, combines the technical mastery, furious energy and hallowed twang of traditional bluegrass with soulful, gritty, dark and psychedelic elements of rock.
A Michigan native born William Apostol, Strings learned to play bluegrass from his father, an amateur picker who learned from his father.
But by the time he reached high school, Strings was already performing with a metal band, an experience he said affects his unique style of play and his frenetic onstage energy.
“It does seem wild, and a juxtaposition,” Strings said of the seemingly disparate styles he’s embraced, “but it also makes perfect sense. Metal and bluegrass are both fast and speedy. I can relate ‘Train 45’ (G.B. Grayson) to ‘Raining Blood’ (Slayer).
“It’s carried over into live performances. I cut my teeth playing bluegrass, but I cut my teeth performing in a metal band. I learned how to play guitar playing bluegrass with my dad, but I learned about moving around on stage in a metal band.”
“Turmoil & Tinfoil” not only showcases String’s ability to craft and perform songs that allude to steeped-in-history, up-tempo, major-chord bluegrass but also his penchant for pushing the style to its limits in favor of melodies that communicate as melancholy, eerie and, at times, ominous.
“I wanted to have a little something for everybody,” Strings said. “That’s why I put a fiddle tune in the middle of a crazy psychedelic record … for my flack-picking buddies. I put a slower country song on there for the older folks who might want to hear a slower country tune. I put ‘Meet Me at the Creek’ on there for the jamgrass fans who want us to go crazy and sweat and bleed. I put ‘Spinning,’ a spoken work track, on there for myself.
“I wanted each track to go in a different direction. I like how the album turned out like that. It showcases a spectrum of different styles of music. I wanted to make it sound old and new at the same time some how.”
When Strings decided to pursue bluegrass, after graduating high school, he moved to Traverse City, Mich., and learned from and performed with veteran mandolin player Don Julin. Since he began touring under his own name in 2016, Strings has earned slots at popular music festivals like Pickathon, Merlefest, DelFest and High Sierra Music Festival and shared stages with Del McCoury, David Grisman, Larry Keel, Sam Bush, Greensky Bluegrass and more.
The recipe for that success, Strings said, is hard work and his talented touring band of banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat and mandolin player Jarrod Walker.
“I have really buckled down and tried to focus,” Strings said. “The band is working really hard. We’ve been out here playing lots of gigs. Heavy schedule. It’s insane. … We’re having a blast.”
But the “secret ingredient in the pudding,” Strings said, is the management of a Scranton resident who is known for his work with Cabinet and Soule Monde.
“It’s Bill Orner,” Strings said. “He’s … amazing. He’s hands on all the time. He calls me every day. He manages everything. We started as business partners, and now I have a lifelong friend, not to mention we’re on this wonderful ride together.”
Orner currently splits his time between Scranton and Austin, Texas, and also manages Brother Roy, Gatos Blancos, Lindsay Lou, Pappy and JP Biondo.
In terms of the success of his record, Strings praised the abilities of sound engineer and co-producer Glenn Brown.
“He’s just badass,” Strings said. “He lives up in Michigan and has a studio in East Lansing. He’s produced several Greensky Bluegrass albums and Joshua Davis albums … and he’s worked with a lot of my friends in Michigan who’ve made great-sounding records. That’s why we went back to Michigan to record when I live in Nashville.”
Thanks being first on his tongue when discussing his quick rise, Strings reflected on his place in music.
“I’m grateful for all of this,” he said. “I grew up playing guitar with family and never thought this would come true and be something tangible and reliable in the future. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Billy Strings
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: F.M. Kirby Center, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
Additional information: Tickets cost $20 in advance and $25 the day of the show and are available now through the Kirby Center box office, online at kirbycenter.org and by phone at 570-826-1100.