Billy Strings, the stage name for William Apostol, knows the bluegrass repertoire and tradition as well as any 25-year-old in Nashville.
But the flatpicking guitar phenom, who played in punk and heavy metal bands as a teenager growing up in Michigan, is also fond of mixing those elements into a sound that appeals to a younger, more progressive audience than what many in the conservative bluegrass world might not care for.
That hasn’t hindered Apostol’s emerging career, as he and his bandmates – Billy Sailing on banjo, Jarrod Walker on mandolin and Royal Masat on bass – tour the country performing some 200 shows a year in support of their first full-length album, “Turmoil and Tinfoil.”
The group released it a year ago and has been receiving praise and accolades from all corners of the bluegrass and acoustic music scene.
Apostol said his band’s performances tend to draw throngs of young people, along with some old-timers.
“I’m always surprised at the age of our crowd,” he told the Hub during a telephone interview from his home in East Nashville. “I take no credit for that at all. There’s always been a progressive side to the bluegrass scene.”
An early start
Apostol was schooled in traditional bluegrass by his step-father, Terry Barber – a fine picker and singer in his own right – from an early age. He recalls being immersed in the music and surrounded by musicians throughout his childhood, with his father at the center of jam sessions and house parties.
“He’s just got a real bluegrass sounding voice,” he said. “He taught me everything I know, man.”
It was during those early years as a budding musician that Apostol got his nickname, Billy Strings, from an aunt who recognized his aptitude on bluegrass instruments.
Today, he’s one of the country’s leading flatpicking guitarists, having been introduced to a master – the late Doc Watson – by his dad.
Apostol said that his father is proud of his accomplishments and deserves a lot of credit for them.
“All those things he taught me when I was just a little kid, about Doc Watson and all that stuff, man, it’s like, this is my path, and he should be able to take pride in that,” he said. “He taught me not only how to get along in the world, but along with music comes beautiful people and community. Not only did he surround me in that, but he taught me something that I could make a career and a living from.”
In appreciation, he invites Barber to play with the band on stage “whenever he’s out there.”
“I love to include him in as much stuff as I can,” he said.
In fact, Barber played and sang on a song that Apostol had written for the album (which is comprised of originals except for one track).
“He hasn’t done too much work in the studio, but when I wrote that song, I couldn’t hear anybody else singing that part but him,” Billy recalled. “I knew immediately that my dad was the guy.”
Another veteran of the Michigan bluegrass scene, Don Julin, helped Apostol make the transition from playing in bars and coffeehouses in Traverse City to a career in music. The shift happened about six years ago, when Apostol was 19.
He’d been working full-time at a hotel and playing music and partying late into the night.
“I was burning the candle at both ends, so I had to choose one or the other,” Apostol remembered. “And then I met this fellow, Don Julin, who was a bit older than me and had made a living of music for the last 30 years.
“He came along and said, ‘You don’t have to work at that hotel your whole life. I’ll show you how to make a living playing music if you want to jam with me.’”
Apostol said he was a little nervous about quitting his day job, but soon he and Julin were playing full-time, and he could see a future doing something he loved.
The duo recorded two albums, in 2013 and ’14, before Apostol decided to strike out on his own and move to Nashville two years ago, where fans and musicians alike were impressed by his amazingly quick, precise and clean picking, as well as his dynamic performing and fine singing.
He released a self-titled EP in 2016 and his first full album last year.
A different path
As a teenager, Apostol got into a heavy metal scene that involved a good deal of drug abuse, and he left high school twice before graduating.
Now, as a professional performing artist, he’s got his priorities clearly in focus.
“I’m very in control of my stuff,” he said. “But in this profession, there’s people offering you things all the time, and you have to turn it down. A lot of people can’t do that. But for me, I can’t perform and put on a good show when I do that stuff.
“When I get on stage,” he continued, “it takes everything I have, and if I don’t get enough sleep, I can’t deliver a show like I was paid to do. I want to be a singer and I want to be a player, not a drinker and partier.”
Apostol said he strives to improve his technique. He observed there’s “no ceiling” to playing guitar and that music has no boundaries.
“I’ve learned how to accept that this is my path,” he said.
“I absolutely love touring and playing,” he added. “To me, being able to travel and connect with other people and make friends and to see places that I’ve never seen, that’s worth more money than I could ever make.”