Get ready for End of Summer Jam, meet Billy Strings

Billy Strings will headline the final Summer Free Concert on Sunday.
Shane Timm/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s been a summer exploding with music. The Steamboat Free Summer Concerts lineup kicked off at the end of June, and throughout the past two months, has brought everything from rock ‘n’ roll to electronic to funk from across the country to Steamboat Springs. Some concerts started under bluebird skies, others under double rainbows; each was its own experience. 

On Sunday, the entire season wraps up with what’s sure to be the best show of the summer — the End of Summer Jam with Billy Strings, Bonfire Dub and Buffalo Commons. Gates to the event open at 4 p.m. Buffalo Commons kicks off music around 4:30 p.m., followed by Bonfire Dub. Finally, headliner Billy Strings takes the stage and brings the whole series home.

Explore Steamboat chatted with 26-year-old Billy Strings, whose given name is William Apostol, over the phone to hear more about his story, his inspiration and what he’s been up to lately. 

Explore Steamboat: What’s your earliest music-related memory? 

Billy Strings: When I was a little kid, like 3 years old, I used to have this little ,white, plastic toy guitar. The batteries had been long gone, but my dad gave me a guitar pick, and I used to scratch on that thing like I was playing. My dad would have friends over to play music, and I remember sitting in my high chair, playing that guitar, trying to keep up with them.

ES: You grew up learning guitar and bluegrass from your dad (Terry Barber). When you guys play together now, what’s it like? 

BS: It’s just a very, very special bond that him and I share. It’s almost like, if the music’s just right, I can get deja vu, and it brings me back to when I was a child, before I had a care in the world. It’s also cool for me to be out here on tour, playing all these cool venues, meeting people. I’m meeting some of his heroes. I get to call him and tell him, “I just played with Bela Fleck or David Grisman.” (My dad is) a professional-level musician, but he just played around the house. For me to be out here really doing it, it’s like he can live vicariously through me. It’s also good for me to carry his torch. I really think he’s one of the best musicians ever, and I try to carry that as much as I can.

ES: You’ve spent a lot of time playing with and being mentored by the bluegrass greats. Can you point to each music mentor you’ve had and explain what you’ve learned from them?

BS: That’s actually pretty easy to do. Del McCoury, first of all, and Ronnie, Jean, and the whole McCoury crew. They’re some of the kindest people on the planet, genuinely beautiful people. Five or six years ago, when I was first touring the country and getting to meet them, that’s the impression they left on me. They lead by example, and they’re so inviting. That really stuck with me on a professional level: when you’re working with people, be kind, polite and respectful, and you’ll be invited back. Seeing how kind he treats everyone made me want to do the same. Sam Bush taught me another musical lesson — he’s been one of my musical heroes forever. One day, a few years back, I found myself up on stage with him, with 10 or 15 other people up there, a big cluster cluck at the end of the night. I went up to the front and did my little solo, then circled back to the back of the stage and hung out back there. Since I’d already had my solo, I took a sip of beer, but as soon as I took my sip, I saw that Sam Bush was standing right next to me. He had his eyes closed, sweat dripping down his forehead, giving his whole soul, 110%, to the song. He wasn’t playing a solo, he wasn’t near a mic. But he has so much respect for the music that he wouldn’t be distracted by anything or focus on anything else. 

Then there I am: I wasn’t even playing my guitar, I was sipping beer. It’s like, “We’re playing a song here.” I’ll never forget that. Every time I walk onstage now, I try to not be distracted by anything for the sake of the song.

If you go

What: End of Summer Jam with Billy Strings, Bonfire Dub and Buffalo Commons
When: Gates open at 4 p.m., music starts 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1
Where: Howelsen Hill Amphitheater, 845 Howelsen Parkway

ES: What’s it like looking up to so many bluegrass legends as a kid, then playing with them on the same stage?

BS: It feels normal to hang out and kick it with those guys and be friends with those guys and be part of the community, but it feels unreal to be up on stage with them. For instance, I was at a festival the other night, and the Del McCoury Band invited me up to play with them. And man, singing — them boys sing loud. It’s like stepping back in time, almost, to a time when bluegrass was new. The Del McCoury Band keeps it so pure, so traditional. 

As crazy, progressive as our stuff gets, I have a huge amount of respect for the traditional stuff. When I get up there and play with them, it truly is an honor and a privilege, and it’s a great deal of fun.

I’ve also gotten to play with the younger guys — String Cheese (Incident), Umphree’s Magee, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. We’re part of the bluegrass community and the jam band community, and a lot of things in between. I’m grateful for all of that. It just makes it fun to have friends all over the country and the world.

ES: You grew up in small-town Michigan, and for the past few years, you’ve spent most of your time touring. How do you think life on the road has changed your music?

BS: It’s changed my music, because it’s changed myself. I feel like back before I traveled a bunch, I was more close-minded. I used to think traditional bluegrass was the only way — I used to be a real stickler. Somewhere along the line, I got into the Grateful Dead and psychedelics; I had a change of heart. I think that music has no boundaries, and you can do whatever you want with music. It doesn’t matter what people call it — it’s just what it is. Art is so subjective and so fluid; it’s really up to whoever is the person hearing it or seeing it or reading it or whatever it is. Traveling the country has just opened my mind and my heart, too. I just feel a lot of love for everyone. We’re all just kind of here on this planet together. If you got on a rocket ship and blasted off into space, the Earth is like a tiny grain of sand. I want to see as much of it as I possibly can, while I’m here.

ES: You’re a bluegrass musician, but you have experience with every other genre imaginable, and you incorporate all of them into your music. What’s your process for that? Is it a conscious decision of “let’s bring in some (genre X) here,” or, when you’re playing and writing, do different sounds just happen? 

BS: For the most part, everything I do is somewhat unconscious. I’m definitely steering the ship, but I can’t control the current. It’s like … “Turmoil and Tinfoil” is a pretty heavy song, and I don’t know where those scales or intervals come from — maybe metal. When I played in a metal band, the music was diminished and diagonal, and not major or minor, a lot of dissonant sounds. So with “Turmoil and Tinfoil,” I guess it was a little bit of a goal to try to incorporate some of that attitude to a bluegrass or acoustic song, but when we’re in the middle of an improv jam, things go wherever they go. It’s like playing without playing. I’m just searching for this state of mind where I just let my brain go. It’s really technical stuff that I’m playing, but you can’t think about it too hard, because that’s how your fingers get tied up. If you’re just going for it and you just have faith, just playing music and having fun, something unlocks there. At the end of the last tour, I got to that state of mind a few times. Like a zen kind of thing. I’m trying to learn more about that. 

ES: You’re known for putting on really high-energy shows. How do you get pumped up before a show?

BS: Every night before the show, I just get a little nervous. Every show has to be the best one ever. Every performance, we have to play better than how we played yesterday. It doesn’t always happen, but dammit, we have to try. That’s my mentality.

ES: Can you introduce the rest of your band, and how you guys are all connected? 

BS: Billy Failing, he’s been with me the longest. He’s on the banjo. Probably three years now, I bet. He’s originally from Portland. I met him in Nashville; we ended up at the same jam session several times. I was looking to start a band when I moved to Nashville. When I met him, right away, I was like, “He’s a good banjo player, and he’s got a good name.” We did a few duo gigs. 

Then I met Royal Masat at a Phish concert — Phish did a couple nights in Nashville, and Bob Weir came and did a couple songs with them. It was a really special evening. Later on, Royal introduced me to Jarrod Walker. He is a total badass on the mandolin. He’s like me, he grew up playing bluegrass since he was a little kid, playing Earl Scruggs and Sierra Hull. He’s a little prodigy. He’s just an amazing mandolin player and great dude. 

They’re just killer. It’s been going really great. I’ve been going through a lot of growing pains of how to be a band leader. I’ve had to learn how to chillax a little bit. Don’t underestimate your own wolves. I’m really lucky. That goes the same for our tour manager and our sound guy. 

ES: When you’re on tour in a new place, how do you like to explore and experience that place? 

BS: For the most part, our group has — in the past, I’ve been — and I’ve gotten better about it — when I get into a tour, I don’t care about stopping to see the Grand Canyon, I want to go to the gig — we’re working. A couple of my bandmates are the exact opposite. I think I’m slowly starting to let go of being so intense on tour and starting to enjoy some of it. I just get into an over-exertion — it was causing me to be an asshole, a pedal-to-the-metal touring mode. I was only able to see the centerline of the road, nothing out of the peripherals. But lately — we went on a band rafting trip, we’ve been doing things more. 

When you’re on a tour, it’s exhausting, mentally, physically. I like to think of it as a weird social experiment. It’s hilarious — you’re doing your job, there’s the passion behind the music, but at the same time, we have lives; it’s hard to be away from your people for so long. But we’ve been a band for so long, we’re learning to talk through things. That’s a huge — I’m like, “Let’s keep our heads in the game” and just want to get the drive done, while the others want to stop for ice cream. We’ve been grinding so hard the last few years, where we don’t have to grind so hard. We’ve been in a meat grinder of a touring schedule, but there’s a light at the end of the schedule. Like right now, I’m on 10 days off. I don’t even remember the last time that happened.

ES: If there’s one idea or feeling that fans take away from hearing your music, what do you hope that is?

BS: I’d hope that it is love. I think love, pretty much, is the great force of existence. When it comes down to it, if you’re on your deathbed, you wouldn’t be worried about money, or anything. You’d be worried about the people you love. If everyone can have a good, fun time and hug each other, and leave feeling happy and good, that’s all good love.

ES: Do you have any advice for any kids out there who look up to you and want to be musicians when they grow up? 

BS: Don’t get married. Just kidding — that’s what B.B. King would say. Practice like the devil, practice every day. Never give up. It’s a hard, long road if you really want to make it, but it’s fun and it’s worth it. There’s a lot easier paths. But you’ll know if you’re passionate enough about it. 

Billy Strings’ next album, “Home,” comes out Sept. 27. 

Buffalo Commons mandolin player Eric Baker, middle, joins guitarist and lead singer Tyree Woods, left, and fiddle player Randy Kelley, right, as the Steamboat Springs band Buffalo Commons warms up the crowd at the base of Steamboat Resort on Thursday afternoon. The local band was the first to take the stage for this year’s WinterWonderGrass music festival, which will feature a number top bands from around the country throughout the weekend.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Buffalo Commons

Buffalo Commons brings original, harmonizing soul-grass into the world right from Steamboat Springs. The group features Tyree Woods on guitar and lead vocals; Denton Turner on bass and vocals; Eric Baker on mandolin and vocals; Gabe Riding on banjo; and Randy Kelly on violin and vocals.

Bonfire Dub will perform during Sunday’s final Free Summer Concert at Howelsen Hill.

Bonfire Dub

Bonfire Dub blends acoustic and electronic reggae, folk and dub to voice ideas inspired by eastern philosophy, political injustice and world issues, love and nature. The group is fronted by Scotty Stoughton, lead vocalist, lyricist and acoustic guitarist; Stoughton is also the creator of the WinterWonderGrass festivals. Rodney James Coquia is on the electric guitar; Jeff Armistead is on keyboard; Mark Levy is on percussion; and Trevor Noel Gagstetter on bass. The band is also often joined by Elephant Revival’s Bridget Law on fiddle.

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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