Drugs, Bluegrass, and Bass Fishing: How Billy Strings Outran His Past and Infiltrated the Mainstream

Drugs, Bluegrass, and Bass Fishing: How Billy Strings Outran His Past and Infiltrated the Mainstream

06/22/2022

Billy Strings backs his black Jeep Gladiator down to the lip of Nashville’s Percy Priest Lake and hops out to unhook the tricked-out bass boat he’s towing behind him. The heavy sounds of Primus, one of his favorite bands, spill loudly out of the cab, where old Combos wrappers, cigarette butts, and fishing lures are strewn about. Strings, in a Dickies work coat with “Boomer” embroidered over the heart and a “Billy Strings” patch on the opposite side, lets his cigarette dangle from his mouth while he frees the boat from the trailer in a pair of white fishing gloves.

“I love this little fucker,” he says, tossing me a line attached to the boat before jumping back into the Jeep to park it nearby. “Just walk it into the water like a dog — and don’t let it float away.”

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Soon, Strings is bounding back down the parking lot, onto the small dock, and behind the wheel of his boat, a 16-foot Tracker he bought as a birthday gift to himself a few years ago. On board, there’s about a dozen fishing rods, tackle boxes full of assorted rubber worms and crankbaits, and some egg sandwiches and orange energy drinks he brought to share. The lightning-fingered bluegrass musician is unfailingly considerate. He’s also an inveterate bass fisherman.

“I go as often as I can,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll get home from a long-ass tour and I should probably just go to bed, but instead I put the boat in the water.”

The night before, Strings was onstage at the Ryman Auditorium, performing the first of three sold-out headlining shows for a crowd best described as unhinged. For nearly three hours, a mix of tie-dyed hippies, young and old bluegrassers, and jam-rock faithful stomped their feet and banged their hands on the pews of the former church; near the end of a particularly fierce jam, one guy shimmied up a balcony column in tribute. Another handed Strings a joint, but he abstained from lighting it onstage “out of respect” for the historic venue.

The Ryman concert was a validating milestone for the 29-year-old Strings, a Michigan native who escaped a childhood of poverty and meth use in his small town of Muir (“There’s nothing to do there,” he says, “that’s why everyone gets hooked on drugs”) to become one of the most popular live draws of the pandemic era.

In 2019, he kicked off a three-year run of consistently sold-out shows, successfully pivoting to drive-in gigs and livestreams in 2020. Of the top 100 tours of 2021, Strings — signed to the independent label Rounder Records — ranked among the top third. He’s also evolved into a festival star, playing high up on the bill at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, and headlining the jam-centric Peach Music Festival. In April, Post Malone, a Strings superfan, made a surprise appearance onstage at one of his concerts.

Billy Strings performs at Bonnaroo in Manchester, TN, June 2022.

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

When Strings drove his fishing Jeep home from the Ryman after that first sold-out show and pulled into the driveway of the log-cabin-style house he recently bought outside of Nashville, he broke down in tears.

“I literally patted myself on the back and looked in the rearview mirror and said, ‘Good job, kid. You fucking did all right tonight,’” Strings says. “It was a good show. The fans were so amazing. I’m like, dude, everything’s good. I’m taking care of myself, I’m not worrying about where I’m going to get my next meal or pay rent.”

At that, Strings guns the boat’s throttle and we’re off across the lake, heading to a favorite cove to shield us from a mid-morning rainstorm and, if we’re lucky, hook some bass.

“I’m not running toward success; I’m running away from poverty,” Strings says, pulling down his baseball cap so the wind doesn’t blow it away. “I’m running away from being a poor meth head, from living in squalor, having no food in the fridge, having no hot water, from taking a shower in a moldy shower and drying off with a towel that smells like mildew. From wearing dirty clothes to school and being embarrassed to take your shoes off at your friend’s house because you’re wearing the same socks you’ve been wearing for days and your feet stink.

“That’s why I cried last night,” he continues.

To hear Strings, born William Lee Apostol on Oct. 3, 1992, recount moments from his childhood is to suspect he’s bullshitting. Primus leader Les Claypool, now a friend and fishing buddy, often tells him, “That sounds made-up,” when he finishes a story. Strings laughs, but swears it’s all true: how he was born during a bluegrass picking party; how a friend of the family — a hitman — drove his mother to the hospital to give birth (“My mom told me he only killed bad people”); how his grandfather and namesake, drunk on Wild Turkey, decided to install a new garage door by driving his car straight through the rear wall and into the backyard.

“My family is a trip, bro. I come from moonshiner, drug-dealing, partying, rock & rolling folks. Hillbillies,” he says. “My mom and dad, man, they got stories that I never believed until someone would randomly come around and verify them.”

Some of those stories are much darker, and more tragic. After his biological father overdosed on heroin when Strings was two, his mother, Debra, remarried. Strings considers his stepfather, a bluegrass-picking good-timer named Terry Barber, his dad. “Terry raised me and taught me how to wipe my ass, tie my shoes, and play guitar. That’s my fucking dad,” he says emphatically. For his next project, he’s plotting an album of bluegrass classics recorded with Barber.

But as Strings was about to become a teenager, life changed. Both of his parents got hooked on meth, he says, and those regular bluegrass jam sessions devolved into nights of debauchery. “What used to be so beautiful — the camaraderie, the parties, the couple Busch Lights, and a couple joints — turned into meth, hardcore binges, no food in the fridge, and no parents, even though they’re sitting right in front of me,” Strings says. Disgusted, he moved out of his family’s trailer when he was 13.

“I’ve talked to him quite a bit about his life,” Claypool says. “We have similar backgrounds. We kinda come from substance-abuse families and tweakers and whatnot. He’s had a lot of these life experiences that are pretty intense.”

Seeing the fallout from drug abuse firsthand didn’t stop Strings from experimenting with a pharmacy of drugs himself — crack, coke, heroin, and meth, among them. “When I was young and I found out my parents were on meth, I was like, ‘Shit, I want to see what’s so cool,’” he says. “That’s why I did heroin too.”

He did heroin only a few times — never with a needle — and stopped after a terrifying hallucination in which he saw death coming for him. “You know in Lord of the Rings when Frodo puts on the ring and those motherfuckers can see him? When I did it that night, I was in the same dimension as the Grim Reaper. The heroin was the ring,” Strings says. “I was really scared of dying.”

These days, Strings’ drug of choice is weed. After finishing his egg sandwich, he pulls a red glass bowl out of his pocket, packs it full, and sparks up. He stopped drinking alcohol six years ago, after an especially disastrous gig; and his parents both got clean around the time Strings graduated high school. He bought his mother a house a few months ago.

Billy Strings backstage at the Ryman Auditorium in May 2022.

David McClister for Rolling Stone

“A nice-ass house, in our hometown. And it’s paid for,” he says with a big smile and nod. “I could have bought a fucking Ferrari or some dumb shit, but the first thing I wanted to do was make sure my mom was taken care of.”

As if she’s aware he’s been speaking about her, Strings’ cell phone begins playing his mother’s ringtone: Willie Nelson’s “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” They talk about that night’s Ryman show, and Strings asks if she and Terry are going to livestream the gig. “Bob Weir will be sitting in,” he tells her. “We’re going to be singing with one of your old hippie friends.”

When Strings was younger, he didn’t much like the Grateful Dead. To his ears, it was five guys each playing a different song at the same time. He didn’t much care for pop music up until recently either. The idea of Auto-Tune and singing to a pre-recorded track are anathema to Strings. When he saw Machine Gun Kelly perform at a Cannabis Cup festival in 2018, he was dumbfounded.

“There were all these big three-part harmonies, and nobody’s singing. He’s got a drummer and a guitar player and he’s playing guitar sometimes, but they’re playing over a track. What the fuck is going on?” he says, shortly before landing an impressive smallmouth bass. “Good morning, children!” he shouts, unhooking the writhing fish, taking a photo for his Instagram, and then releasing it.

Like with the Dead, though, he’s become a fan of Machine Gun Kelly, along with artists like Jack Harlow and the late rapper Young Dolph. “Memphis Trap,” he says. “I love that shit because it’s always talking about coming from nothing and making something of yourself.”

So what caused him to soften his stance toward mainstream music? “Hanging out with Luke Combs and Post Malone,” he says. Strings spent a few days writing with Combs at the country superstar’s Key West retreat, and they released the bluegrassy collab “The Great Divide” last January. Back in 2020, he joined Post Malone at the rapper’s Utah compound, hamming it up with a lever-action rifle on Instagram and singing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs into the wee hours.

Billy Strings on Percy Priest Lake near Nashville in May 2022.

Joseph Hudak

“He’s a fucking super-nice guy. Like Del McCoury nice,” Strings says, comparing the face-tatted “Circles” singer to the bluegrass great. “You gain respect for somebody who knows every single word to ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou).’ It’s like, ‘Damn, this motherfucker knows more Hank than I do.’”

“Hell ya, what a good night,” Malone tells Rolling Stone in an email when asked if he remembers the jam session. “It was at my house, got some beers and got out the guitars. He was recording in a town not too far from where I live. When I found out, I told him to head over.”

Malone, who recently described Strings as “the best to ever fucking do it” when he joined him onstage in California to perform Johnny Cash’s version of “Cocaine Blues,” says he was initially compelled to reach out to the guitarist on Instagram after watching a Strings performance online.

“I found Billy singing ‘Dust in a Baggie’ on his couch, man,” Malone says, citing Strings’ fan favorite about meth addiction. “Every time I’d be drinking, I’d toss it on. I loved it.”

The unlikely duo have since been talking about collaborating in the studio. “I don’t know what it would sound like, but I bet it would be a kickass song,” Malone says. Strings views any duet with Malone the same way he approaches the idea of one day headlining arenas: It would have to happen naturally. But he once again credits Malone for opening his mind to popular music. “Maybe it’s Auto-Tuned, maybe it’s on the radio, but who cares?” Strings says. “These people who make this music work hard and they’re great musicians.”

Strings may have grown to appreciate certain radio hits, but he remains skeptical of the pop mainstream. At first, Strings was floored to receive an invitation from the Grammys to perform “Hide and Seek,” his nine-minute song about suicide, at this April’s awards show in Las Vegas. He outfitted his whole band in the haute couture of Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent, and Burberry (“I was going to bring my boys looking good to this thing,” he says) and arrived on the roof of the MGM Grand ready to perform. Strings says when he walked to the stage, he gave himself the same speech he’d later say aloud in his Jeep after the Ryman.

Billy Strings and bandmate Jarrod Walker warm up prior to Strings’ headlining performance at the Ryman Auditorium in May 2022.

David McClister for Rolling Stone

“I said, ‘Good job, kid, you’re doing great, just stay calm.’ I’m giving myself this pep talk and I walk up the stairs to the stage, and I take a step off a five-foot ledge into total fucking darkness,” Strings says. “I land on my back. Cracked my guitar. Ripped my pants. Fucking knocked the wind out of me.

“I look at where I fell from and there’s one tiny little thin line of white tape, which is not high-vis. And there’s no railing.… Meanwhile, these fucking people are wiping off the smudges on my bandmates’ instruments to make sure there are no fingerprints,” he says. “They’re so worried about that that they don’t fucking put up a handrail?” (The Recording Academy did not respond to a request for comment.)

Strings retreated to his tent, smoked a bowl, and returned to play “Hide and Seek” (which ultimately ran as a bumper before and after a commercial) with a revelation. “Maybe I don’t belong here,” he says.

But it’s clear that Strings is fully at home in front of his fans. At the Ryman, the night before our fishing expedition, he blazed through a 26-song set of originals including “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” covers like Greensky Bluegrass’ “A Letter to Seymour,” and traditionals such as “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song he says some artists won’t play because O Brother, Where Art Thou? made it too popular. He scoffs at that, but cites a song that won’t ever appear on his set list. “I’m not going to play ‘Wagon Wheel,’” he says. “That’s about where I’ll draw the line.”

During one instrumental jam, Strings stalked the stage and banged his head with all the flourish of a metal shredder while picking out leads on his acoustic. He runs his guitar through myriad effects pedals to create a decidedly non-traditional sound.

Claypool, who’s working on an album of fishing songs with Strings, compares him to Jimi Hendrix. “I get to play with some monsters, and the thing that impresses me most about Billy is not just his technical ability, but he plays like someone who has been on the planet much longer than he has,” he says. “He’s been sitting on the porch playing with his family since he was five years old. That’s an incredible way to hone and develop your musical conversation.”

Strings doesn’t buy into such praise. As he sees it, he’s just doing what he was raised to do: play music. He hopes to headline even larger venues, but he has no plan in place. Rather, he’s all about the homegrown.

“What I need to do is keep my head down, stay the fuck out of this mainstream bullshit, keep doing what I’m doing — just playing to our fans, who are showing up by the thousands,” he says.

By now, it’s early afternoon and Strings has to be at the Ryman for soundcheck. He’s excited that Weir is sitting in, but he’s still exhausted from the night before.

“I feel like Baby Yoda after he uses the Force,” Strings says back at the dock, dramatically throwing up his arms and letting them drop as if he’s collapsing. But, he says, it’s his fans that see him through. “They’re rowdy as hell, so that just gives us all this fucking big-dick energy,” he laughs. “Like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re fucking badasses.’”

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