Billy Strings wants a second chance.
Last year, the 31-year-old Strings played two headlining shows at Nashville’s 18,500-capacity Bridgestone Arena, and followed with a show at country music’s “Mother Church,” the Ryman Auditorium. Tonight (Feb. 23), he returns to Music City for a repeat trio — two headlining stints at Bridgestone (Feb. 23-24), followed by a sold-out headlining set at the Ryman (Feb. 25).
“Bridgestone last year was sort of like a fickle mistress or something,” Strings tells Billboard. “I don’t think we blew Bridgestone up. The show was good, but as soon as I played the gig, I was instantly like, ‘We need to come back and try again.’ I just want to blow the roof off of Bridgestone. I’ve done a year of playing arenas now and Bridgestone is really important, because I live here [in Nashville]. That’s where I see all the bands that I like, that’s where I go see $UICIDEBOY$, it’s my hometown arena. So I put a lot of pressure on myself about Bridgestone.”
Strings, who won a Grammy for best bluegrass album for his 2021 album Home and reigns as both the current entertainer of the year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMA) and artist of the year at the Americana Music Awards, advanced to playing arenas over the past year. His current trek includes multiple nights at arenas in Atlanta (State Farm Arena), New Orleans (UNO Lakefront Arena) and Pittsburgh (Petersen Events Center).
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According to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore, Strings — who since 2017 has been one of the key leaders in the ongoing progression of bluegrass, with his expansive guitar playing and quick-fire improvisational style — grossed $10.8 million and sold 174,000 tickets across 28 reported concerts in 2023, with many of those being arena shows. Those figures average out to $386,000 and 6,200 tickets per show.
The notion of a bluegrass picker ascending to performing multiple nights at arenas places this guitar master on a level of some bold name country and rock acts who regularly pull such double-headers. But a glimpse into Strings’s genre-eschewing shows offers a reasoning behind his appeal as an artist, one who has grown beyond a strictly bluegrass audience. A freewheeling, genre-melting show where Strings is just as likely to deliver a bluegrass standard as throw out a transcendent, high-octane, metal-infused guitar riff — and often in the same song. That’s by design, says the Michigan-raised Strings.
“Growing up, I listened to heavy metal, I listened to bluegrass, jazz, rock and rap,” he explains. “I’m not trying to be bluegrass. I’m not trying to be this or that, I’m just playing. I grew up playing bluegrass, so that’s kind of the medium I paint with — but I just play music, and whatever comes out is what happens. I don’t know what the hell kind of music it is.”
He’s also collaborated with everyone from mainstream country artists Dierks Bentley and Luke Combs to R&B artist RMR and rock band Fences. Combine that with the freewheeling, jamband feel his shows put forth, and it’s understandable that a Strings show draws a wide spectrum of concertgoers, from bluegrass aficionados to Deadheads, teens and older hippies.
“It might be young folks that are just getting into bluegrass and people who are into psychedelia, it’s all over the board,” Strings says. “You look out and see a guy headbanging wearing a Slayer shirt at a bluegrass concert. That’s freakin’ cool.”
The buildup to playing arenas has been steady, and conscientiously through out.
“We’ve always tried to be careful,” Strings says. “We toured in a van for as long as we could before moving to a bus, just stuff like that. I think we could probably play two or three nights at some of these places — but we choose to do only two, just to make sure they are full.”
Though Strings playing the 2,362-capacity Ryman is an underplay at this point, he says performing at the 132-year-old historic venue is always special. “Last time, we did all bluegrass songs, wore suits and played a bluegrass concert, which was so fun,” Strings recalls. “This year, I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe an MTV Unplugged vibe, something stripped down. That’s what’s so cool about Nashville — like last year, we went from Bridgestone to the Ryman and then to Roberts [Western World on Lower Broadway]. So it goes from the biggest stuff ever to the funnest stuff ever.”
He also notes that, as with nearly any solid Nashville show, fans can expect some surprises. “We’ve got some friends coming down,” Strings teases.
Longtime Strings fans and music aficionados might also notice some fresh nuances to his guitar playing–the results of this naturally-talented, playing by ear guitarist taking his first-ever guitar lessons.
“Last April, I started getting sick of myself and felt like I was on a plateau,” Strings says. “I’ve never taken lessons, I don’t know anything about music theory, and I’m in these sessions with Bela Fleck and people who are very well-versed in harmony and theory — and I’m just sitting here, some old country bumpkin, playing by ear, which is great. But now I have a guitar teacher and he’s got me learning jazz and classical and Charlie Parker tunes, stuff I never really play as a bluegrass musician, and it’s opening up my brain to different harmonic avenues. I can feel my fingers starting to reach for notes that weren’t there before. I never had a deliberate practice routine, ever, but I was building a career. Now that I have a career, it’s like, ‘There’s so many people that have practiced more than me and I’ve just been out here ripping gigs.’ So I’m having fun kind of starting over from the beginning.”
It is likely that somewhere in his three-night span of shows, Strings’ setlist will include his Grammy-nominated Willie Nelson collaboration, “California Sober,” which Strings released in honor of Nelson’s 90th birthday last year, and which marked Strings’ first release since partnering with Reprise Records, following a long association with Rounder. Strings says the collaboration was set in motion after Strings performed as part of Nelson’s Outlaw tour nearly two years ago.
“I got to hang out with him on that tour, and I was so inspired just by being around him,” he says. Later, Strings wrote the song and realized, “This is such a Willie song that I can’t record it without him.” He sent the song to Nelson, who agreed to record it. Strings went down to Luck while Nelson recorded his vocal.
“Just sitting there in the studio and making the song was amazing,” says Strings, noting that they followed the session with a game of poker at Nelson’s house. “He took a thousand bucks from me, real quick … I had no idea what I was doing, and he had no problem with that. His wife was like, ‘Man, this is gross. This poor kid doesn’t even know how to play poker.’ And Willie’s like, ‘Well, he shouldn’t have sat down.’ I would’ve spent another thousand just to sit there at that table.”
While Strings’ current tour runs through May, followed by some summer festivals, Strings has also been in the studio recording and says a new album is likely on the way this year.
“We got a record coming out probably in the fall,” he says. And it sounds like those sessions –- just like his live shows — are centered on chasing the muse and challenging himself musically.
“I’ve been working on it a little bit between touring. I’m recording at home for the first time ever. Me and the band, sometimes we’ll work for 12 hours, sometimes we’ll work for three. Not having a time limit, no restraints, has been awesome, just for the vibe.”