Traverse City’s Billy Strings Awarded Instrumentalist of the Year

The hits just keep coming for William Apostol, a.k.a. Billy Strings. The longtime area favorite was just named “Instrumentalist of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association at its Momentum Awards show during the World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So how did he react when he walked onstage to get the award?

Umm, actually he didn’t. He was at home watching a movie with his girlfriend when he got a text that he’d won. “I knew I was nominated, but I didn’t think I was going to win. My booking agent accepted it on my behalf,” he says when reached by phone while on tour in West Virginia. “I just thought it was cool to be nominated. Two of the others (nominated) played on my album. It’s not competitive. It’s an honor to be included in the community.” The IBMA’s Momentum Awards focus on “artists and industry people who are in the early stages of their bluegrass music careers.” Performance awards are presented annually to one band, one vocalist and three instrumentalists.

Currently on tour with the Yonder Mountain String Band, Strings’s career continues to spiral upward. “I’ve been working hard. I don’t take it (success) for granted. I’m lucky to be here.” It’s not clear if he meant gazing at the fog-covered mountaintops of West Virginia or achieving continued success. And it really doesn’t matter. “It’s an amazing planet,” Billy says.

It’s been just about a year since Strings left Traverse City to make his mark in Nashville. He knew he would have more career opportunities there and it was home base for his girlfriend. But it wasn’t easy.  “I miss the hell out of Traverse City. I miss the lake. I lived 10 minutes away (from it). You never know what you’ve got till you’re gone,” Billy says.

But things are going well for the guitarist and vocalist, currently touring with his band, Drew Matulich on mandolin, Brad Tucker on bass and Billy Failing on 5-string banjo. Strings recently scored an endorsement deal with Preston Thompson Guitars of Sisters, Oregon. They’ve supplied him with a brand new Thompson D-MA model, a dreadnought body with mahogany back and sides and an Adirondack spruce top. That’s quite a stretch from the $25 guitar his father bought him when he was four, one he begged for when he saw it at an antique store in his hometown of Ionia.

Then again, Billy Strings himself has come quite a ways from that talented child who grew up picking with his family. The 24-year-old has said there was always music around his house, and after getting that first guitar he began playing with and accompanying his father, Terry Barber, who was an accomplished musician. Then he began playing at pickin’ parties at his uncle’s campground.

He readily admits there was a time when he turned his back on bluegrass, opting for pop and rock sounds. He was even in a heavy metal band for a time, before he decided to channel that energy into the music he grew up with. “Rock and roll, reggae, funk, heavy metal—I love all sorts of music. I cut my teeth on bluegrass, but l Iove Black Sabbath and King Crimson. Music is boundaryless, it has so many dimensions.” Today, many see his music as combining the spirit of rock with the mastery of acoustic music. “I try to bring a raw energy to my show. I don’t want it to be boring,” Billy says. “It’s bluegrass with aggression.”

Strings is currently on the road, something he says is practically a constant right now. He has some Michigan dates coming up, including stops in Holland, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor next month. He says he probably won’t make it back up to Traverse City until next year.

See Billy Strings live. Find tour dates and locations here


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