Written by John Nowak
William Apostol was four years old when his father bought him his first guitar. His father, Terry Barber, bargained with the woman at the antique shop in Ionia, Michigan, and came home with a $25 guitar that would set young William on a path for true musical greatness. Fast forward 20 years and he has shared the stage with Del McCoury, David Grisman, Greensky Bluegrass, Sam Bush, and more. In 2016 he won the International Bluegrass Music Association Momentum Awards Instrumentalist of the Year. His 2017 debut album Turmoil and Tinfoil hit number three on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts, and Rolling Stone named him one of the “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know”. In 2018 he will be touring with Greensky Bluegrass, another Michigan band on top of the national bluegrass scene. Not bad for a 25 year-old picker from small-town Michigan.
“They’ve been like my big brothers,” said the flat-picker known widely as Billy Strings. “They’ve shown me how much fun they can have out there. They’ve taken me under their wing. They don’t have to do all the nice things they’ve done for me but they do. They are true gentlemen.”
Billy Strings, a nickname given to him at a young age by his Aunt Mondi, grew up in rural Michigan and was thrown into the world of music from the day he was born. His father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, are all accomplished musicians. By the age of five, Apostol was playing at family parties, around campfires and campgrounds, accompanying his father on tunes like “Beaumont Rag” and “Salt Creek”. The bluegrass influence was strong, and Billy showed true talent from a young age.
As a teenager Apostol got into the underground metal scene, moshing and sweating through the night with his hometown friends. “For a while there I wanted to play music with people my age. I was used to playing with my dad’s older friends and stuff, but in middle school everybody had these metal bands,” Billy said in a phone interview. He still brings elements of metal into his music and live performances; the energy, the power, and the intensity. But at a party after a show with his metal band in Grand Rapids, MI, Billy had a moment of realization:
“There was an acoustic guitar and I picked it up and started playing a fiddle tune and all my friends went crazy. They said ‘We knew you were good at the guitar, but damn!’… I thought ‘Wow, people actually like this stuff! Like I do.’”
The lure and nostalgia of bluegrass and his childhood was too strong.
“Eventually I got so into bluegrass that’s all I was listening to. I was just on YouTube watching Doc Watson everyday. I got an acoustic guitar and then I started learning all the stuff I used to play when I was a kid. The next thing you know it’s my electric guitar that’s collecting dust. I ended up going back to my house and playing bluegrass with my dad because that’s where my heart was…it’s a nostalgic thing, it’s a deep respect and love for this kind of music.”
After high school Billy wanted to “explore other horizons” and moved to Traverse City, MI because a friend needed a roommate. There he picked at open mic nights and played with a band called M-23 Strings. It was there he met Don Julin, one of the most respected mandolin players in the state- he wrote the official Mandolin for Dummies book.
“Don Julin introduced himself to me one night at a coffee shop where I was playing a gig. He said his guitar player couldn’t make a gig and asked if I wanted to pick some bluegrass tunes and I said ‘Sure!’. Next thing you know this thing turned into a snowball effect. Now we had 200 gigs a year, it just happened so fast. I just went with it.”
Billy was working at a hotel, working long days, gigging most nights afterwards. Eventually the cash in his dresser drawer from the gigs with Julin exceeded his paycheck and he said: “Screw it, I’m gonna quit my job and just work on music… [Don Julin] is the one who taught me how to make a living at it.”
From there, Billy moved to Nashville in 2016 to start a band and be surrounded by the best musicians and pickers in the scene. He returned to Michigan to record his debut album “Turmoil and Tinfoil” with Glenn Brown, who works with Greensky Bluegrass, Eminem, and more.
“We’re from Michigan, we have pride about that. I really trusted Glenn. I trust my Michigan roots.”
The album features 12 tracks ranging from bluegrass to psychedelic Americana to traditional. Bryan Sutton and Billy’s father, Terry Barber, are two of the talented musicians who contributed to the record.
The opening track “On the Line” starts the album off on a fast-paced, edgy note with lyrics that voice a difference of opinions between generations.
“You could say it’s directed towards old folks that don’t understand our youth.”
Billy wrote the song after watching a clip from a 1995 episode of The Phil Donahue show that focused on moshing at rock and metal concerts. Marilyn Manson was on the show and the center of attention and disagreement between the host and older generation in the audience, and the moshers and musicians on stage.
“We do this because we want to and it’s great, we’re having fun- it’s art. You can’t stop us from moshing at our shows, you can’t stop us from putting our lives on the line. If I wanna get in the mosh pit, I’m gonna fucking get in the mosh pit.”
In contrast, the final track on his debut album, “These Memories of You”, features a powerful collaboration with Billy’s father on vocal harmonies. Billy’s love for music, bluegrass, and life is inseparable from his family.
“My dad should be proud because he taught me how to do this. As a father I think one of your main duties is to teach your son how to get along in life. With my guitar, he’s taught me how to get along.”