‘I was running away from poverty’: the remarkable rise of bluegrass virtuoso Billy Strings | Pop and rock

B.illy Strings didn’t believe in panic attacks until he had one. On tour a few years ago, he woke up in a hotel room at 5am, convinced he was dying. “My hands were tingling, my lips were purple, I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “It felt like an elephant was standing on my chest.”

Terrified, Strings went to hospital. By the end of the day, he had a prescription for the benzodiazepine alprazolam (sold under brand names including Xanax) and a therapist, whom he still sees regularly.

When we chat via video, he is just back from a session, still in the patterned blue robe he wears to them as a comfort blanket. The 29-year-old Grammy winner is endearingly open, mostly because he wants other people to find the same kind of help and hope that he has. Ten years on the road as a musician is hard enough, but William Apostol – his aunt di lui nicknamed him Billy Strings – has had a lot more to deal with than that.

‘I’m not looking back, I’m only looking forward’… watch the video for In the Morning Light.

The guitarist is having a rare sojourn at home in Nashville between gigs, enjoying the opportunity to tool around on a nearby lake in his little fishing boat, or crash out in front of a box set. “I’m lazy, you know?” he claims, improbably. If the mainstream music scene is only just catching up to Billy Strings – in October, he reached No 1 on the US Billboard emerging artists chart with his new album, Renewal, which is outselling some of country’s biggest stars – it is not from lack of application. Strings has been one of the most popular and prodigious live performers in the American roots world for several years, with a dedicated following that has fallen hard for his virtuosic picking di lui.

A festival favorite, his gigs marry old-school bluegrass with jam-band abandon and some of the wildest stagecraft on the circuit. He learned his hero worship of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Doc Watson from his stepdad (“It’s just what you did at my house – you woke up, put on your underwear and grabbed your guitar”), but it was playing in metal bands as a teenager that taught him to entertain a crowd. “We were headbanging, running into the crowd, spitting on people – blood and sweat, that was the vibe,” he laughs. “So now I’m some unholy mixture of the two.”

It works – not least because his songs put a modern twist on the hard living the early bluegrassers captured so well. The title of Strings’ first album, 2017’s Turmoil and Tinfoil, captures a childhood spent surviving poverty in small-town Michigan, having lost his father to a heroin overdose at two. His rambunctious signature tune di lui, Dust in a Baggie, which sounds like a prison-and-moonshine song straight out of the bluegrass canon, reflects the everyday reality of the opioid-ravaged community he grew up in. He wrote it when he was 19.

Strings’ mother and stepfather were both heavy drug users. Music was a coping mechanism for Strings and his brother di lui, growing up in the local meth den, where they often had to go without food, electricity or hot water. He left home at 14, living a precarious existence until a friend’s mother took him in and helped him finish high school. “You need to go through some shit to be able to beg for forgiveness on a six-string guitar,” he says, the kind of wise-beyond-his-years observation you come across frequently in his lyrics by him.

After graduating from school, he escaped his home town and encountered the sound that would become inspiration and salvation – rock-influenced jamgrass bands such as Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass, whose mandolin player, Paul Hoffman, became a friend and mentor. From then on, Strings understood his goal of him. “I was playing 200 and some gigs a year. I was driving the van, loading the trailer, selling merch; I was the tour manager, I was writing the songs, fronting the band, overfunctioning a lot. I thought I could do it all, but really I think I was terrified to go back, just running away from poverty. “

Jam-band abandon… at the 2021 Railbird festival in Lexington, Kentucky. Photograph: Erika Goldring / WireImage

His breakthrough came after nearly a decade on the road. In 2019, Strings signed with the esteemed independent label Rounder and produced Home, the album that lui grappled with where he had come from. One song, Enough to Leave, was dedicated to two friends who died of overdoses within a week of each other. Renewal, last year’s follow-up, is the sound of someone who is finally ready, in Strings’ words, to “look out the windshield and not out the rear-view mirror”.

The music is a natural evolution of Strings’ brand of what you might call rebelgrass. His band’s astonishing acoustic skills and deep reverence for traditional music are as present as ever, but they are combined with experimental pedal work and synths. Their spontaneity rips through tracks such as Hide and Seek, which features a six-minute improvised instrumental recorded on the first take – it was so “fucking lit”, says Strings, that they never managed to reproduce it.

After watching a documentary about the Doors, Strings had determined to write more collaboratively with his bandmates (“you realise Light My Fire was written by the guitar player and think: hold on a minute, this wasn’t just Jim Morrison’s poems set to music “) And organized a week-long retreat to a cabin in Tennessee, where the musicians worked and enjoyed themselves in equal measure. Strings hasn’t drunk alcohol since he was 23, when he realized that his post-show binges di lui were getting out of hand; he worried that they might suck him back into the world he had just escaped. But he remains an enthusiastic consumer of cannabis and psychedelics, which helped fuel the party atmosphere in the cabin that week. Hide and Seek was conceived one morning in the wake of a vast collective hangover.

Strings’ style has never had much to do with ballads, but In the Morning Light is a tender love song that looks well positioned for crossover success. It was inspired by his engagement of him to his girlfriend and manager, Ally Dale. “Part of the reason my life is so good now is I’ve got this amazing woman in it, and that certainly made its way on to the record.”

His relationship with his parents is just as important to him. “There was a period when the only time I would see my mother was at a gig and I’d see her for 20 minutes then be on my way to the next city and she would be sad …” he trails off and becomes, for the first time, bashfully inarticulate. “I just bought her a house,” he says, quietly, with a look of humble delight. “So, like, she is happy. It was a really big goal of mine for a long time. I think it’s… a really badass thing. “

What about his own comforts – there must be a few luxuries now that Strings is a bona fide headliner? “Hugely! Insane ones! I’m a pampered little diva queen – I don’t even have to touch my gear, you know? They drive us to the gig, book our flights, make sure we’ve got food… all I do is play video games and smoke weed and go play in shows. “

He may have learned to let go of what is behind him, but, as the songs on Renewal attest, it will always inform what is ahead. “Being able to sit in the back of a tour bus and make myself a sandwich, or go grab something out the fridge, are you kidding myself? I don’t take that shit for granted. “

Billy Strings plays Islington Assembly Hall, London, on 26-27 March

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