By Brent Thompson
Ever so often, a young virtuoso comes along and reintroduces his or her contemporaries to traditional music woven into the American fabric. Stevie Ray Vaughan breathed new life into the blues, Diana Krall gave us an updated take on jazz and standards, and now guitarist Billy Strings is bringing the sounds of bluegrass to his generation. Strings’ 2017 album, Turmoil & Tinfoil [Apostol], has taken on a life of its own by still charting in 2019. Produced by Glenn Brown (Greensky Bluegrass) and featuring appearances by fellow Nashville-based musicians including Miss Tess, Molly Tuttle, Bryan Sutton and John Mailander among others, Turmoil & Tinfoil rings familiar and fresh at the same time. On Thursday, March 7, Strings will perform at Saturn. Recently, he spoke with us by phone shortly before he took the stage at the Wintergrass Festival in Bellevue, Wa.
Birmingham Stages: Billy, thanks for your time. Have you performed at Wintergrass before this year?
Billy Strings: I’ve played this festival – it’s been quite a while. We’re doing soundcheck here in about an hour and play a set around 4 and our last set is around 11:00 tonight.
Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Turmoil & Tinfoil.
Strings: I appreciate that – it’s been kind of crazy. I made that album two years ago and it’s still on the bluegrass Billboard charts, or at least it was last week. We have made a new record since then – it’s probably going to come out this fall – but I’m just glad that thing seems to be getting the longevity. Two years later people are still going, “Hey, that’s a great record.”
Birmingham Stages: How did Turmoil & Tinfoil come together? Were the songs written in a creative burst or had they been around for a while?
Strings: I think probably more of the latter. I had a few of those tunes and two of the songs I wrote while we recorded the session. A few of them I had a year before we went and recorded, but once we started recording I squeezed out two more songs as well. So, it’s a little bit of both. We played “Meet Me at the Creek” live, but we try to keep the songs under wraps ’til the album comes out.
Birmingham Stages: With the touring and promotion for Turmoil & Tinfoil, has it been challenging to find time to write new songs?
Strings: Absolutely – it’s been very difficult. It’s not difficult in a negative way. We play so many gigs and I’m never home and I never sit still. I’m always in an airplane or van or loading in or doing a soundcheck or something. There’s never a moment for me to try to write a song, so it’s hard to find that time. I carve it out every once in a while. [In writing] some of the songs for the latest record, I told my agent, “These 10 days right here – this is all mine. I’m not playing gigs – I’m going to be writing songs.”
Birmingham Stages: From the outside looking in, it seems that the bluegrass scene is a true musical community. Is that a fair assessment?
Strings: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the cool thing about bluegrass. Everybody’s normal and they’re not big stars that are too cool to talk to anybody. Everybody’s normal and they play guitar or banjo.
Birmingham Stages: You’re based in Nashville these days, correct?
Strings: I’m from Michigan and I live in Nashville.
Birmingham Stages: I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes in your adopted hometown since you moved there.
Strings: I have – isn’t that crazy? I’ll be on tour for a couple of weeks and I’ll come home snd see a whole new building pop up that wasn’t there before.
Birmingham Stages: You enlisted the help of several Nashville musicians for Turmoil & Tinfoil. How does that process typically work? Does the guest fit the song or does the song fit the guest?
Strings: It might start with the instrument – “Oh, I could hear fiddle on this.” And then I go to John Mailander and he’s a great fiddle player. He ended up playing on a bunch of stuff. Bryan Sutton – that’s a good example of how it happens because of the song. I needed a guitar track – something to showcase flatpicking guitar – and Bryan Sutton is my hero and he’s an inspiration and a mentor. I thought how cool it would be to have him play on it.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about working with Glenn Brown as producer.
Strings: He’s made quite a few records up in Michigan for a lot of my friends – not just Greensky Bluegrass – but he also made stuff with Joshua Davis, Steppin In It, Airborne or Aquatic?, The Go Rounds. These aren’t bluegrass bands – Glenn knows how to take a bluegrass band and record them like a 1970s rock and roll band. He has all that old gear and he’s kind of a wizard.
Billy Strings will perform at Saturn on Thursday, March 7. Showtime is 9 p.m. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $12 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.