If you love acoustic guitar playing, or if you love bluegrass music — or both — you have to check out the duet that Billy Strings plays with Bryan Sutton on a traditional tune called “Salty Sheep,” on Billy’s new album Turmoil & Tinfoil. It’s a finger-picking extravaganza, with two virtuoso guitarists goading each other to further heights, swapping leads fluidly, following and then leading, with amazingly quick, precise and clean picking. When they slide into a unison bit heading toward the finish line, it’s truly blissful. One of the players chuckles a bit as the last note fades away.
It’s a high point of many highs on Turmoil & Tinfoil by the current denizen of East Nashville, where the Michigan native is making a name for himself as one of the most incendiary bluegrass guitarists on the scene. The fact that Sutton, a multiple Grammy winner and one of the most highly respected guitarists in bluegrass today, appears on Billy’s first full-length is testimony to his bona fides.
Billy Strings, the stage name of William Apostol, knows the bluegrass repertoir and traditions. But Billy also grew up on punk and heavy metal (and, dare I guess, psychedelic) music, and he mixes up all of these elements into his music. (Everything on this album is original except for “Salty Sheep,” by the way.) The best example comes during the extended jam of “Meet Me At The Creek,” which is the second track on the album, and comes pretty close to capturing the intensity of his live performance — which you can see on this live take of “Meet Me At The Creek”:
He and his band — Drew Matulich on mandolin, Billy Failing on banjo and Brad Tucker on bass — are more than capable of playing it straight, and they prove it on the opening track “On The Line.” It’s as straight a bluegrass song as you’ll find, musically at any rate. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a challenge, or maybe a manifesto, in which he takes a stand for a lifestyle that’s a bit more “out there” than might be acceptable to many in the conservative bluegrass world.
“All Of Tomorrow” is a slower affair, a shuffling, sad honky-tonk love song, which showcases some impressive singing chops, although some of his vocal stylings are as idiosyncratic as his lyrics and his picking can be. But the fiddle duet on one of the instrumental breaks on this one is as sweet as they come.
“While I’m Waiting Here” sounds like an homage to John Hartford, a sturdy ramblers’ love song built on a chassis that sounds a lot like “Gentle On My Mind.” Except in this one, the protagonist is sitting in jail, hoping his loved one will be waiting for him when he gets out. The psychedelic element shows up pretty blatantly in this one, particularly in the woozy production by Glenn Brown.
Things get deeply rootsy on “Living Like An Animal,” a very traditional-sounding song on which Billy’s vocals are backed only by banjo, harmonica and Jew’s harp. And they get a little weird on the title track, a psychedelic picking extravaganza with deep reverb on the vocals. Lines about “nauseating gloom” and a”wretched path” add to the other-worldliness, heightened by off-kilter chording during the instrumental breakdown.
The music continues to swing between extremes, sometimes within one song. A bit of subtle electronics introduce “Pyramid Country,” an instrumental piece with impressive picking from everybody, a blending of bluegrass and rock sensibilities and techniques. “Doin’ Things Right” is blatantly rock & roll on acoustic instruments. I’m not quite sure what to make of “Dealing Despair” with its chorus that ends with “I just wanna blow out your brains.” It seems to be a statement against the current toxic political atmosphere, or maybe the drug scourges that are killing so many rural communities – or maybe both of those things and more.
Billy sings a delightful duet with his father, Terry Barber (himself an accomplished bluegrass guitarist) singing high harmonies, on a new song that sounds as old as the hills, “These Memories Of You.” Just mandolin, guitar and the two voices.
It doesn’t get any weirder than the spoken-word piece “Spinning,” a psychedelic fever dream of universal scale. Or does it? After a short pause following “These Memories Of You” there’s five minutes of improvised sounds on what sounds like some old-school synthesizer, an Arp or a Moog perhaps.
Billy and his band are heading out on an extensive tour this fall, with the like-minded band Whiskey Shivers based in Austin, Texas. Details are on Billy’s website. If you like your music a bit on the wild side but with a deep appreciation for the traditional, check out Billy Strings on record or on tour.