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Grammy Winning Bluegrass Artist Billy Strings Has A New Album

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's all in the name, Billy Strings. The bluegrass virtuoso has a new album out. It's called "Renewal." And on it, Billy Strings plays guitar, synth and a guitar banjo hybrid called the guitjo. And he sings...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME THE DOOR")

BILLY STRINGS: (Singing) She ebbs and flows like water. And she feels just like wine...

SIMON: Billy Strings joins us now from Spokane, Wash.

Thanks so much for being with us.

STRINGS: Thank you so much for having me on the show. How are you doing today?

SIMON: Fine, thank you. This is your first album since you won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Did you know what you were going to do next? Is it a little intimidating?

STRINGS: It's a little intimidating to follow up a Grammy Award-winning album, you know, because we didn't really think about any of that when we were making the record "Home." You know, we were just making a record. And so now it's like, oh, whoa, we can win Grammys (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah, a lot of the songs on this album seem to touch on regret - the song "Secrets."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECRETS")

STRINGS: (Singing) You blink and life is left behind you. There’s no escape, that’s just a fact. We’re all a dollar short, and every one of us is running out of track...

SIMON: You say you blink and life is left behind you, there is no escape. That's just a fact. We're all a dollar short and every one of us is running out of track. Boy...

STRINGS: Yeah.

SIMON: Where does that come from?

STRINGS: I think it all sort of comes from life experiences, you know? And every day, you're closer to that last one. Life is short, I think is what I'm trying to say.

SIMON: Yeah, well, we've all learned that in particular from this pandemic, haven't we?

STRINGS: Absolutely.

SIMON: I do want to ask you about the last track, "Leaders."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEADERS")

STRINGS: (Singing) Where are the children left to play? Let mother nature lead the way. We're going to need her love someday...

SIMON: What brought this about?

STRINGS: Well, I almost don't believe in borderlines and different countries and, you know, different human bullcrap that we've sort of thrown into the mix. I've had a couple psychedelic and very enlightening experiences that made me feel more like an animal here on Earth, not different from the trees and the deer and the fish and the breeze. And I think us, as humans in general, are maybe a little greedy and maybe, you know, we take and take and take and take. And I don't know how much more the planet can take. And I just don't think we're the leaders anymore or if we should be allowed to be.

SIMON: Well, we do have opposable thumbs. That creates certain expectations that we can get a hold of things.

STRINGS: Right. But, you know, it's kind of to our own demise. I mean, I feel like, you know, we have so much going on that we figure out we can do stuff things and it's like, oh, we have to do it, you know, no matter what the resources are or whatever. And a lot of that comes from just wanting to make money.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS SONG, "LEADERS")

SIMON: Let me ask about a little bit from this song, "Hide And Seek," because this is a gritty bluegrass album, but there are some, many ethereal sounds. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

SIMON: This is going to sound strange, but I've heard writers say they think with their fingers. Do you think with your fingers?

STRINGS: I'm trying to talk with my hands. Yeah. But yeah, it's very much like when I'm playing stuff like that, it's just I'm trying to convey a sort of emotion or say something with my guitar. A lot of my favorite guitar players, you know, they sound like they're laughing or begging or crying. Or, you know, Jimi Hendrix used to make his guitar sound like the bombs in Vietnam. It's a very amazing thing to be able to communicate with sounds without any words.

SIMON: Do you ever get submerged in or lost in the sound you're making where it becomes kind of like its own life force?

STRINGS: Absolutely, you know, especially when we're playing live and we're in front of an audience. And we go out on one of these little kind of space jams, like the one you just mentioned. And yeah, I get really lost in it. You know, I think the audience does, too, for a while. And we all sort of go on this little journey together. The more they kind of cheer us on and stuff, if they get really loud and rowdy, we will, too, you know. Or if they're really quiet and subdued, we'll probably bring it down, you know what I mean? It's like they're in charge.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRINGS SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

SIMON: I called you Mr. Strings at the top because we try to err on the side of courtesy. But that's not the name you were born with in Kentucky, is it?

STRINGS: That's correct. And I was actually born in Lansing, Mich. But at the time, we were - you know, my folks lived in Kentucky, in Morehead. So, like, my mom went up to visit my grandpa for his birthday while she was pregnant with me. And that's when I decided to come.

SIMON: (Laughter).

STRINGS: Yeah. So my name was supposed to be Turner Fairfield Apostol.

SIMON: Wow.

STRINGS: But since I came on grandpa's birthday, they're like, this is little Billy, you know? So my name is William Lee Apostol. And A-P-O-S-T-O-L, which everybody always spells wrong, which, you know, it's part of the reason I got the Billy Strings thing going. It's easier to remember. But that was a nickname that was given to me by my Aunt Mondi when I was quite young. You know, I was a little kid sitting there learning how to play bluegrass music with the adults and stuff, and she just looked over one day and called me Billy Strings. And that was that. Later on in life, when she was on her deathbed, that was about the time that I had started just playing open mic nights around Traverse City. And when she died, I wrote my name on the chalkboard as Billy Strings. And that was that. I made little business cards, and I said, screw it, man, I'm Billy Strings.

SIMON: Sounds like you have a lot of people rooting for you up there.

STRINGS: That's true. Yeah, my grandma and grandpa and everybody, I wish they could be here now to see what I've done. Because my grandma, when she died, I was into heavy metal music, and she hated it. She was a kind of hardcore Baptist, and she loved bluegrass gospel. She hated to see me dyeing my hair black and wearing girl pants and, you know, stretching out my ears and playing heavy metal music. You know, it just - to her, it was Satan's music. And she died before she got the chance to see me go back into bluegrass. But I do think she'd be awful proud of what I'm doing now.

SIMON: Billy Strings - his new album, "Renewal," out now. Thank you so much for being with us.

STRINGS: Thank you, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOW IT ALL")

STRINGS: (Singing) Well, all I know is everything I’ve learned. And if I’m changing, that's the reason that I’ll turn into someone I can trust before I turn back into dust... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.