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Billy Strings Plays Hot Bluegrass Up North


Guitarist William Apostol, who goes by the name Billy Strings, is getting a lot of attention among bluegrass fans in Traverse City. The 20-year-old, flat-picker is a regular at some of the open mic nights in town and is playing and recording with some of the best known musicians in the area.

Apostol grew up in Muir near Ionia and learned much of what he knows from his father Terry Barber – also an accomplished bluegrass picker. As a toddler, he sat in his high chair and strummed along with is father on a plastic toy guitar.

His father got him his first real guitar when he was 4 years old. He saw it while they were at an antique store and “had a fit.”

“[I was] rolling around on the floor and screaming and carrying on,” he said. “My dad bought me that and started teaching me chords and stuff on that."

Apostol – who was dubbed Billy Strings by an aunt when he was a child – came to Traverse City about a year and a half ago. He has a day job at a local resort that doesn’t involve playing music. He likes that there are a lot of musicians in the area. But a big reason he came here was to get away from drugs and partying that some of his friends had gotten mixed up in.

He wrote a song titled “Dust in a Baggie” about a good friend who is serving his second prison sentence, now 20 years, for possession of methamphetamine.

The lyrics include these lines:

I haven’t slept in seven days

Haven’t ate in three

This methamphetamine has got a damn good hold of me

My tweaker friends have got me to the point of no return

So I just took my lighter to the bulb and watched it burn.

Apostol has played other styles of music and was in a heavy metal band called Groove Tongue when he was younger. Still, he always comes back to bluegrass. He says it gives him déjà vu.

“I can’t explain it, but it’s just the love of the music. When I was little, I’d go to sleep with banjoes ringing in my head.”

Apostol calls bluegrass "earthy". He loves it because it uses acoustic instruments, so it can be played the same in a large auditorium or at a small house party. It’s the music he can pick up and play with total strangers and make it sound like they’ve rehearsed together. It’s the music of his favorite performer Doc Watson.

But most of all, it’s the music his father taught him, and remains a strong bond between them. The two perform together at festivals and other events.

“We’re in the middle of a tune and the crowd’s going nuts I look over and he’s taking his break and he’s got the biggest smile on his face. And then, standing ovation, encore. After that, we walk off-stage and he just gives me the biggest hug and tells me he loves me. And that’s what it’s about, man.”

Billy Strings will be playing Sunday, Nov. 18, from 1-4 p.m. at InsideOut Gallery with M-23 Strings. Then from 4-6 p.m., he’ll be at Left Foot Charley with mandolin player Don Julin.