Live Interview: Billy Strings
06 Feb 2016 - Big Sky Big Grass - Big Sky, MT
for The Lot Scene by Parker
Big Sky, MT, boasts world-class skiing in a close-knit community atmosphere nestled in stunningly gorgeous mountains surrounding on all sides. In short, it is a winter paradise that has the privilege of hosting the Big Sky Big Grass bluegrass festival every year, this year being the 10th. The fest attracted many big names this time around including the illustrious one and only Billy Strings. And we were just lucky enough to grab a piece of his free time on Saturday to sit down and converse about a few things. Here is precisely how that conversation went:
TLS: So, we were at the Saturday night show of the Denver Bluegrass Generals.
BS: Oh yeah.
TLS: Simply awesome show. Really, really fun. Can you give us a little insight about what it’s like to be a part of a supergroup with musicians of that level? You obviously had different generations of string band musicians represented there — everybody incredible on their instrument and you’re there wailing away with them. That’s got to be a particularly cool feeling.
BS: So, I felt like I was going into battle with Yoda and Gandalf and Rambo…you know, these guys are my heroes, man. And, yeah Panda and Andy invited me out to come play and I was just completely honored to play with those guys. It was incredible. You know, I listen to those guys’ records, like I said, they’re my heroes and to be able to go onstage and then not only jam like Dusters tunes or String Cheese tunes, but to make up jams and just play music and jam and have fun with those guys…it was unreal. There were definitely some moments. Playing in the Bluegrass Generals was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of, so if I seem like I was a little excited on stage, I was fucking stoked.
TLS: For good reason.
BS: Yeah, it was awesome. But, yeah, the music went great and we just got together early each day and rehearsed and it was just so much fun so huge kudos to Panda and Andy for pulling that thing off, too. There were good crowds both nights. I mean, of course, you’ve got Nershi and Dusters and String Cheese, dude, there’s gonna be crowd out there in Colorado. Those guys are heavyweights, man, those guys are masters at this genre and this music…
TLS: Well, they’ve been doing it a long time.
BS: Yeah, for sure.
TLS: And they definitely have the chops. That’s awesome, man. I bet it was fun, too, just good fun.
BS: It was amazing…I just had so much fun. After the second night we were pretty much just like jumping up and down like children. Like, “dude, we did it!!” You know? It was so fun. And yeah, it was also a little bit of a challenge for me playing mandolin was kinda…you know, I’m not really a mandolin player, man.
TLS: You wouldn’t know it.
BS: We had Bill Nershi on the gig and we thought screw it, man, I’ll try to do a little bit of that.
TLS: You were tearing it up, man.
BS: So, yeah, I just did my homework at home. When I got this gig, I went out and bought an iPod and I just downloaded all the Strindusters’ tunes and all the stuff. I had listened to that stuff before but didn’t own all the albums, so, I got all the stuff I needed to learn and I just sat there with my mandolin and just one headphone in to, like, learn the chords and chart it out for myself. So then when we got to rehearsal I felt like I knew what was going on because I had done my homework. Going into it I was a little bit nervous, but once we all got together in the same room, the music just came automatically. It was like as soon as we started playing together we were all like, “Wow! This a cool band. It sounds good!”
TLS: Any talk of future gigs with the Generals?
BS: Well, who knows? When duty calls, I show up.
TLS: Very patriotic of you.
BS: Yeah, it’s my duty to the people and to the music. You get drafted, you gotta go, buddy. I ain’t no dang draft-dodger. //laughter//
TLS: //laughter// I love it. Well, let’s talk about some Big Sky since we’re all here now. So, obviously, it’s a pretty different festival from other music festivals: it’s at a ski resort. And most aren’t…at least not during the winter. So you mentioned during your set yesterday that Big Sky Big Grass last year was your first time skiing. On the personal side of things, have you skied anyplace else since then?
BS: No, no. I’ve only been skiing two times in my entire life and I’ve only skied at Big Sky Big Grass. And that’s because they hook us up with rentals, you know, and stuff. I can’t afford to go skiing. //laughter//
TLS: It is pricey.
BS: Yeah. Drew Emmitt took me out earlier and gave me a little lesson to teach me how to turn and stuff, you know, and how to slow down. We had fun — it was great skiing with those guys. Alwyn Robinson got out there and got on his feet, too, and it was fun. But, Drew said, “yeah, man. This is ‘work-cation’.” That’s what he said. We’re here to play our gigs and to deliver some awesome music to the people and the people who come to this festival want to hear good music so that’s why we’re here. But, during the day before all the music starts, if they’re going to hook us up…I mean, I’m in a bathrobe. Hot tubbing. Skiing. Just hanging out, pickin’. We play music ’til five in the morning at this festival and everybody’s hanging out from the McCourys…Keller, you know, everybody’s just here, man. It’s like a vacation for us, too.
TLS: It seems like it. I really does.
BS: And as far as this whole festival and Steve and Jason and everybody and how this thing is run…they take care of their artists, man. We’ve got good food, we’ve got fresh powder on the slopes, and we’ve got all the refreshments we need. Everything’s great — we’re just taken care of. We’re all just having a great time, you know? Like I said, it doesn't really feel like work. I feel like I should pay to have been a part of this.
TLS: Don’t tell them that. //laughter//
BS: /laughter// Yeah right. It’s things like this that make me sit back and realize just how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing and playing music. Enjoying myself and being young, you know? My feathers are fluffed, man, I’m out here to have fun. And that’s what’s going on — everybody else is, too. We’re having a good time out here at Big Sky, man.
TLS: Do you find it difficult to balance skiing all day and partying all night and going to pickin’ parties?
BS: Yeah, it’s hard. Last night I went to bed at two in the morning and I am the most responsible person here. //laughter//
BS: I mean, usually it’s not until six AM I finally put my guitar away, I go back, you know, and then I’m just feeling like total crap because I’ve just been up all night singing, partying, and hanging out. And then I try to get up at 11 or 12 to go skiing…ski all day, go to sound check, do it all over again. By Sunday I’m toast, man but it’s all worth it. It’s all worth it.
TLS: This is really the only place that I know of where you can do what happens here. To have that kind of day.
BS: Yeah, I’m not going to go to sleep when Drew Emmitt’s just rippin’ it up down in the lobby and he’s like, “come pick, man!” Dude, I’m gonna go pick. I have to.
TLS: Sometimes you just have to say yes.
BS: I tried to go to sleep last night even earlier, but then I ended up going back down and getting my guitar back out for a little bit. But then I finally called it and said I’ve got to get some sleep. So, you live and you learn. The more I do this stuff, sadly I am partying less and working more, but I’m still having a great time. You just can’t party all the time and everything, you’ve gotta get some sleep, drink lots of water…otherwise I’ll lose my voice. And if I’m losing my voice and stuff like that then I’m not being a professional. To me it’s all about the show — I’m here to deliver the goods. And that’s what I plan on doing.
TLS: It’s awesome to hear that kind of commitment. I think from a crowd standpoint that everybody loves to hear good music. That’s what we come to hear. And, so, to know that kind of commitment on behalf of the musicians that you are seeing, it’s a great affirmation.
BS: Well, man, like I said I am so lucky to get to do what I do. If I didn’t do the best that I could do then I wouldn’t be doing very well at all, man.
TLS: It’s so good that you know that. That’s awesome. Good for you, brother.
BS: A couple of years ago it wasn’t always so easy, you know, I’d get to a festival and start hanging out with the Greensky boys or whomever and we…I…I don’t know how those guys do it. They still do it. Those guys are freakin’ rock stars and they still somehow pull it off. It’s crazy. But, yeah, I’ve just been trying to work on the music and just be myself.
TLS: Right on, man. Well, I mentioned pickin’ parties just a second ago and I know that’s a big part of what goes on here. We sat down with Pappy Biondo recently and talked with him…
TLS: Yeah, it was great. We had a really great interview with him and talked a little bit with him about pickin’ parties and their significance for him and it was really interesting, the stories that he told. So, we’ve obviously seen you playing here at the pickin’ parties…do you have a long history with that culture? I mean, is that something that as soon as you started playing people were like, “hey, come on! Let’s go to the pickin’ party!”?
BS: Dude, when I was five years old, you know, four or five years old, my parents would have people over. You know, there’d be people over at my house in the kitchen, pickin’…having some beers. And my dad and my uncle and everybody…bass player, fiddle player, banjo player, everybody gets together and they’re all pickin’. That’s how I was brought into this world, man. I cut my teeth doing that. And it’s amazing. And the more cool parties like this I get invited to, the more I get to pick with Sam Bush and you get to pick with David Grisman and, you know, people like that. And for me, that’s just more inspirational than anything. Just hearing those guys in person. When David Grisman plays the mandolin, it’s the truth.
TLS: //laughter// That’s a good way of putting it.
BS: I mean, geez. And all those guys. Man, last night Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury and Drew Emmitt…
TLS: That was a mando showcase.
BS: It was “mando mania”.
TLS: That was intense.
BS: But yeah, so, being able to just play music in a more laid back setting because, for me, a lot of the times performing is a lot different than that, you know? Because, then if I mess up or something or we all crash and burn then it’s OK because we’re just having fun. Now I’m always having fun on stage, don’t get me wrong, but I still get stage fright, you know. Before I walk on stage I’m a little bit nervous and I’m just hoping everything goes well and I’m really into it. I’m really just into it, it’s a different thing. It’s a mental kind of thing. And when we have a really good show it’s like cloud nine, man. You’re living it up. And as stuff kind of goes wrong, it’s really easy for me to turn it on myself. Just through like man you could have done so much better. So, I’m always trying my hardest and I realize I’ve done the best that I could, but there’s always better and I’m always learning and, so performing, it’s just a different thing. So being able to just get together with everybody and just have fun is really awesome. Calling out tunes…we’re playing tunes that maybe we don’t all know, but then you learn tunes that way and it’s amazing. Yeah, I’m always wherever the pickers are.
TLS: That’s fantastic. So, would you say that sometimes you prefer and nice, good pickin’ party to big ol’ stage show?
BS: They both have, you know, their benefits. You’re not going to sell any fucking merch at the VFW Hall… //laughter//
BS: Nah, I’m just kidding. Like I said, there are highs and lows and there’s lefts and rights and ups and downs about everything. I do love just pickin’ with friends and getting together and having a good time. But then there’s something about performing, too, that I just really get off on.
TLS: Absolutely. I understand completely. Right on, man. Well, we’ve got one more question for you and then we’re off the record. This one is about your recent move…you moved to Nashville from Michigan. First of all, it must be pretty cool to transition to a city that is just steeped in music culture.
TLS: So, just out of curiosity, what motivated you to make that move? Is it just the obvious that it’s Nashville and it’s where all the music is at, all the producers are at, all the musicians…?
BS: To me it was that I just want to pick with people, man. I like to play bluegrass music, you know? And, I like to play other music, all sorts of stuff, too. I love Traverse City and Ionia, those are the places that I came from. You know, I was born in Lansing, MI. Michigan is my home. I hope to be buried there someday. But, sometimes I would look out the window and almost feel sad for myself because there’s nobody to pick with. You know, I could get together with some folks up there and it’s got a great music scene, Michigan’s music scene is on fire. As far as people showing up to the shows and the support from the community and everything. But there’s not necessarily a lot of bluegrass musicians up there, you know, banjo players, fiddle players, stuff like that. So I just wanted to get somewhere where there’s people my age playing the music that I’m interested in, so I can mingle with people musically, and grow. I’ve got a lot of work to do. Playing, like you said, at pickin’ parties. I live in East Nashville. Dude, I’m over at someone’s house or I’m going down to the Legion and watchin’ David Grier, pickin’ with him. Or there’s always these house parties. It’s almost like grad school or something where there’s like house parties but everybody’s not getting all wasted. We actually get together, cook a nice little dinner, and then we’ll pick. And maybe sometimes we’ll just work on original music or whatever or just play bluegrass, but we’re always playing music.
TLS: That’s very special.
BS: Yeah, Lindsay Lou and Josh Rilko of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, they’re my next-door neighbors. And those guys are just really creative and some of my best friends in the world — I love them to death. So it’s really good to get together and pick with Josh all the time…
TLS: Yeah, right next door…
BS: Yeah, it’s great man. And Del and the boys are all up in Hendersonville…me and Jason are talking about grillin’ out and pickin’ some tunes and stuff like that. So, there’s everybody around, you know? Crooner’s back in Nashville, John Mailander, Nick Disebastian, and you’ve got Molly Tuttle, there’s just so many great musicians. And a lot of people that are my age, around my age, so it’s really fun to hang out with people that are my age that are into the same thing because, I mean, it’s just fun.
TLS: Well, fun’s fun.
BS: Yup. And, yeah, I mean, no brainer. I just wanted to move…I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life and just wanna try something else. And I was half damn tempted to move to Denver, man, I’m telling you. It was a toss up.
TLS: That’s a good toss up.
BS: And…I almost moved to Denver, but then this house came up and it was right next door to Lindsay and Josh, like I said, and I was like, man, perfect location, perfect price range, perfect house…I was like, “I gotta go.” So Nashville it is. But I might end up in Denver some day.
TLS: It’s always going to be there…you know.
BS: I looooove it. I love the atmosphere, I love the people and the mountains and everything. But, yeah man. Nashville’s great. There’s tons of great music there and everybody’s pickin’ and having a good time. It’s a great scene right now — it’s really thriving I think. And I’m just honored to be a part of it. Love playin’ music, man. I just love playin’ music.
TLS: So, now that you’re there, what do the next few years look like? Are you thinking of trying to put a band together?
BS: Yeah, absolutely. For the last few weeks I’ve just been putting together kind of pick-me-up bands or just putting little bands together for these certain shows and that’s OK, but I need to get together with some guys so we can really focus on the music and put some hard time into it and make it tight. So it’s fun, you know, but, like I said, I’ve got a lot of work to do.
TLS: I’m sure building a band can’t be easy.
BS: No, so I’m just trying to hang on, man. To a new life. //laughter//
TLS: Good for you. //laughter// That’s awesome. Right on, brother, well that’s all we have today.
BS: Hey man, thank you.
TLS: We really, really appreciate it.
We had a simply splendid time sitting down with our new friend Billy Strings for this interview. Definitely one of the all-stars of the entire Big Sky Big Grass festival he also is one all-star individual and a great amount of fun to chat with. We are looking forward to so many amazing things from this uber-talented and supremely skilled young gentleman. Thanks for all the good times, Billy!! See you at WinterWonderGrass!!