Flatpicking fireball Strings to blaze through Islamorada
January 10, 2018
ISLAMORADA — Bluegrass phenom Billy Strings, who hails from southern Michigan and is on tour throughout the south, brings his lightning-fast picking and introspective verse to Islamorada for this weekend’s 6th Annual Baygrass Bluegrass Festival.
This year’s headliner picked up the guitar at age 4, the son of a musician who appears on Strings’ new album, “Turmoil & Tinfoil.” Strings, 25, reflects on his troubled younger years in his lyrics, while showcasing his guitar skills in intricate jams and a furious style that he developed during an early stint in a metal band.
Strings doesn’t hold back in songs that look back on his high school years surrounded by drug abuse, though he still finds plenty of inspiration in bluegrass now that those issues are well in the past.
“Bluegrass has so much to say,” he said. “There are generations of pain to draw from.”
Forgiveness is another theme in “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” released in September, about a year-and-a-half after Strings went solo. He’s laid back, laconic, a contrast to his onstage ferocity, which is highlighted during interplay during long, intense jams with anyone who dares enter his arena.
He mixes in some covers along with originals from his new album, and takes joy in the sense of comradery among fellow pickers.
“We play some Grateful Dead, a few other covers,” Strings said. “Bluegrass is such a deep language that five guys who don’t know each other can get together on stage and jam because they know the same songs.”
Strings’ dad was a big inspiration growing up, but southern Michigan provided limited opportunities to collaborate with other aspiring bluegrass musicians, though Strings says he honed his songwriting skills there.
“There isn’t much of a bluegrass scene in Michigan, but there is a singer/songwriter and Americana scene,” he said in reference to American roots music.
Rolling Stone magazine took note of Strings last year, describing his music as “the head-banging speed of a thrash metal band channeled through flat-picked guitar and mandolin, with a touch of end-of-the-world psychedelia.”
Constantly writing, Strings says that bluegrass has enough depth and reach to allow for creativity, adding to the form without affecting its roots. He says he doesn’t worry much over his career, instead focusing on telling his story.
“I think I have plenty to say. There’s plenty of room to do new things,” he said.
Though the young musician remains a showman with his energetic stage presence and near-frenetic style, Strings has toned it down a bit in recent years.
“I took some stuff with me from the metal band I was in and I couldn’t let go of a few things,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “We jumped all over the stage and kicked each other and spit on people in the audience. I don’t do that at my shows now.”
Joining Strings among a host of others at this year’s festival is Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, a Jacksonville-based “outlaw blues” outfit and their “blazing tempos, outlaw attitude, foot-stomping intensity (and) acoustic wizardry,” as described on the band’s website.
Front man Brett Bass is a flatpicking champion and has played onstage with Strings in the past, setting up a potential fury of back-and-forth guitar work as the bands jam together.
Tickets are $20 for the Sunday’s concert, which is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 8.p.m. at Founders Park, if bought in advance at baygrassbluegrass.com, or $25 at the gate. Anyone 17 or under gets in free.
Friday night features a 6 p.m. “Square Dancing in the Streets” party at mile marker 81.5, oceanside, in the Morada Way Arts District. Saturday night’s “BBQ and Pickin’ Party” starts at 5 p.m. at the same location. Both events are free, but a $10 donation is encouraged. Proceeds go to Audubon’s Everglades Science Center and arts and music scholarships for Upper Keys students.
Tour dates for Billy Strings can be found at billystrings.com.