the newest “Ace” in Colorado’s burgeoning Bluegrass scene.
Life as a touring musician inevitably has you around a lot of people. How about times where you want to get away?
I love to get outdoors and clear my head; I usually enjoy hiking out at Chautauqua and the Flatirons. I’m excited about rock climbing in up in Boulder Canyon as well this spring when the weather gets a little warmer.
Tell us a bit about your musical journey.
(Laughs) Well, it’s a long and winding road. From classical music presented by my parents as a small child, to my older brothers introducing me to classic rock guitar, and then the occasional Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck records played by my dad around the house. Music, in its various forms, was certainly an integral part of my upbringing. I began playing the violin at age seven and quickly shifted over to electric guitar as a 13-year-old. The stylings of Jimi Hendrix and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, among others, left a big impact.
And then came the natural transition from Hendrix to Bluegrass?
I’d been interested in bluegrass from the banjo records my dad showed me, but finally took up playing banjo when I heard Yonder Mountain String Band as a high schooler. My dad showed me the basics on his old open-back banjo. By the time I went to college in Eugene, Oregon I was starting to play out with other musicians, and eventually helped form a bluegrass band called Mossy Top. Following that, I later played in a Portland-based band called Wy’East. As my passion for the instrument grew, I ended up moving to Boston in 2011 to attend Berklee College of Music to study the banjo.
Discuss your approach to songwriting.
My approach to songwriting is somewhere between systematic and spontaneous. Most times, an idea will come to me spontaneously, when I’m messing around on a banjo or guitar. I’ll work with it and develop it while it’s fresh in my head. What typically follows, is putting the idea on the shelf for a bit, before systematically developing a song form around it and revising lyrics, melody, and harmony endlessly before the song is finished. I typically go on a lot of long walks, playing and replaying the song in my head to write new verses and revise what I already have.
The trajectory of Billy Strings has been incredible to watch.
Playing with Billy (William Apostle) and the band over the past three years has been an incredible experience. I met Billy through some mutual friends in Nashville in 2015. I was looking for a gig and Billy was looking for a band. At first, he asked me to come out on the road for a couple of weekend dates. The music got tighter, and I signed on full-time. Haven’t looked back since!
True that. You guys have recently played iconic venues such as The Ryman Auditorium, and most recently, The Grand Ole Opry. Are you pinching yourself sometimes?
It’s been pretty crazy. It seems like just yesterday (literally) we were playing bars and early afternoon festival slots. Over the last year, the shift has been to larger clubs, concert halls, and prime time slots at festivals. It’s been incredibly rewarding. Having the opportunity to reach and play our music for larger and larger crowds is a powerful feeling.
This September, you are going to support Greensky Bluegrass at Red Rocks. Stoke level on that?
Stoke level is very high! I’ve still never been to a show at Red Rocks, and am hugely honored to be playing there with Billy and the band opening for Greensky this fall. I was hoping to catch Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles there with Vulfpeck and Khruangbin, but we’re traveling to another festival that weekend. I’d love to experience a concert there as a viewer to get the full energy of the place, but we’re pretty busy this summer, so I may be experiencing it for the first time from the stage in September.
You have some “Billy Failing Band” local dates coming up.
I’m really amped to be fronting my own project at Cervantes (Denver) on Friday, April 26th, opening for the Bluegrass Generals (featuring members of Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, and more). It’ll be the first time since 2017 playing a show as the Billy Failing Band, and I couldn’t be more excited about the musicians I’ll be playing with for that show. I’ll be playing with Silas Herman on mandolin, which I’m sure most bluegrass fans in the area are familiar with. Also joining us will be Eric Thorin on bass, and Todd Livingston, who’s a fantastic dobro player. See you there!