Billy Strings may be the most controversial name in bluegrass, playing blazing leads on acoustic and distorted electric guitar, an instrument frowned upon by the genre’s hardcore traditionalists. But the 25-year-old may just be following a family tradition.
“I cut my teeth playing bluegrass with my dad at home (in Michigan),” he remembers. “I started playing guitar when I was 3 or 4 years old.”
“My first seven years on the planet I heard mostly Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers," Strings says. "When I got older, that’s when he started to show me Black Sabbath and stuff like that. He was born in 1955. So in the 1970s he had long hair and he had a couple of Fender Strats and a couple of Les Pauls. He can play some Jimi Hendrix. He can play some Black Sabbath and some Led Zeppelin. He can play blues. He’s a rocker as well as a bluegrasser."
It’s that combination of hardcore bluegrass and psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll that Strings will bring to Club Dada on Wednesday, Nov. 7. Vintage Guitar writer Dan Forte described the title track of Strings’ newest album, Turmoil & Tinfoil, as taking “bluegrass down new roads without tearing up the map.”
“I just like so (many) different kinds of music,” Strings says. “I love bluegrass. And I love rock ‘n’ roll. I love blues and soul and funk.”
The track that may offend bluegrass purists the most is "Spinning," which Strings told Grateful Web “describes me unspinning my DMT trip.”
“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” he elaborates. “It’s me describing a psychedelic experience that I had. I think it was a life-changing moment, so I put it on my album. I want to write about real shit, stuff that’s happening now.”
But the negative reaction of some die-hard bluegrass fans to his more psychedelic ventures frustrates Strings.
“I get a lot of shit from people. It really hurts my feelings,” he confesses. “If I could sit down and talk to these folks about Bill Monroe or Doc Watson, they’d see that I’ve dug deep and I’ve done my homework just as much as any of them. But because we play psychedelic stuff, sometimes folks in the traditional bluegrass world don’t give us the time of day.
“I grew up on Doc Watson. No matter what I do, no matter how psychedelic we (get), you’re always going to hear (that) in my playing. That’s how I learned. That’s my flat ground. If ever I fall, that’s where I land. That’s solid ground that I stand on.”
If you want proof that Strings knows traditional bluegrass, listen to "All of Tomorrow," a song from his most recent album. It’s a note-perfect tribute to first-generation bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman.
“I love Mac Wiseman’s voice,” Strings raves. “So I wanted to write a song in that style to honor Mac Wiseman but to have it be an original tune.
“All of those old fellers that came before us: Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, they carved the path. They were up there in the tall grass with machetes knocking down the weeds for us kids that ended up playing bluegrass.”
As you might expect, Strings cites a wide variety of guitarists as his biggest influences. Besides his dad, Strings names Watson, Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, Johnny Winter and Bryan Sutton as touchstones.
“Doc Watson is actually my all-time favorite,” he asserts. “When Hendrix took a guitar solo it was all over. He played that stuff from his heart. Same thing for Jerry Garcia. He had a lot of emotion in his playing. And one of my favorite recordings (is) Tony Rice singing 'The Hills of Roane County.' He just sang that thing perfect, just beautiful. When I hear him sing on that one, it’s like, ‘Holy shit, Tony Rice is as good as Keith Whitley.’”
Regarding his future plans, Strings wants to keep playing a mix of traditional and decidedly non-traditional bluegrass music.
“I’m just playing music,” he insists. “That’s all it is.”
Billy Strings’ Top Three Desert Island albums
Doc Watson – Southbound
Doc Watson – The Essential Doc Watson
Grateful Dead – Europe ‘72
Billy Strings will play at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Club Dada, 2720 Elm St.