Billy Strings attacks his bluegrass music with a ferocity that would make a punk rocker jealous, singing songs of the working poor like the hounds of death are on his heels.
“I tried to put some of that energy into it. I tried to put some of that little guitar riff into it,” Strings said.
His unusual bluegrass technique has a lot of fans. His first album, “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard bluegrass charts.
The accolades don’t end there. The International Bluegrass Music Association has nominated Strings for Emerging Artist of the Year and Guitar Player of the Year, but he will have to wait until after the Black Swamp Arts Festival to find out if he’s taking home the prize.
“I just can’t believe it. What an honor. I feel like I’ve got that imposter syndrome,” Strings said. “I don’t think I‘m there yet.”
Strings looks younger than he is, but at 25 he’s seen some things. Like many bluegrass artists, he sings about the rural poor. In this day and age, the issues often revolve around drugs. He doesn’t pull punches with his writing.
“Yeah, small town America, it can be pretty dismal. Ionia, (Michigan) is a pretty small town and like a lot of small towns there’s too much depression and drugs. A lot went down a bad path,” Strings said. “I’ve got friends that are in prison, overdosed, still smoking meth. It’s hard up there, and in a lot of small towns. It’s in Ohio, Indiana, western Pennsylvania.”
His songwriting is just as furious as his playing and improvisational jams.
“You could call us a jam band, like the Grateful Dead. It’s not arranged,” Strings said.
“I wrote a song the other day about a friend who overdosed, and another friend who went from heroin. They’re both dead,” Strings said.
Somehow the energy of the songs drives past the sadness of the subject. It sometimes verges on speed metal, with Strings’ acoustic electric guitar, Billy Failing’s banjo, Jarrod Walker on mandolin and stand-up bass played by Royal Masat. All four band members sing.
“A lot of the rhythm comes from the strings. They chop on the back beat,” Strings said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to get that rhythm going and create something people can dance to without a drummer.”