Bob Lefsetz is a music biz philosopher/guru who writes the Lefsetz letter that goes out, usually daily, to a large audience, reputedly in the hundreds of thousands. Many “heavies” in the music biz follow him and respond with emails which he sometimes publishes. Recently he wrote enthusiastically about Billy Strings, not so much about his music as about how his shows have been selling out in large venues though he doesn’t fit the model of having “hits on Spotify” or other standard models. I wrote in to say more about Billy the artist and performer, not just his commercial success. The original post generated so many responses that Bob published a follow-up post that included my letter.
Billy is “one of ours” and his amazing success rightfully makes us proud.
Here’s my message as published in the Lefsetz letter:
I’m a regular reader, and I’ve never written to you. But because Billy Strings is a bluegrass artist, and I’m a lifelong bluegrass pro who served 15 years as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, I thought I’d contribute some perspective about what makes Billy special. Several things:
- He is a for-real guitar virtuoso. Having studied Doc Watson deeply for years, his clarity and tone are a close match to Doc’s and just sounds really good even at high speeds. He’s the reigning king of the flatpicked acoustic guitar with technique as awesome and as flawless as they come.
- He is 100% authentic, not an easy thing to pull off in today’s big music biz. He sings and writes from the heart, and fully believes in what he’s doing. He grew up on bluegrass (as well as a high interest in metal). There’s a great YouTube of a concert of just him and his dad — an old-fashioned no-mistaking-it bluegrass guy. It’s great to see them interact.
- His band is excellent, no-b.s. bluegrass hounds, and they sing really well. At a Billy Strings show you get to hear first-rate banjo picking and mandolin picking, scarcely heard on big stages since the heydays of masters like Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe.
- His music is fully accessible, easy to follow even at high speeds, and his writing is about real things, not mindless pap.
- His life story as detailed in a big NYT article is compelling, growing up in a meth household and getting into trouble while finding his own path. A very unlikely success story considering his troubled start. This helps make him interesting and an object of admiration by young and old alike. It’s natural to root for him.
- He slides easily between honest traditional bluegrass and open-ended experimental jam-grass a la Phish. Combines the clear virtuosity of bluegrass with a style that appeals to Dead types. Being invited onto shows with Bill Kreutzman has helped him widen his appeal.
- His easy facility on the guitar and his body language as he shreds is exciting to watch and is for-real, not concocted or overblown.
- Bluegrass has an honesty about it and a depth of tradition that takes exceptional skill to sell to a wide audience — and Billy’s steeped in that tradition and can fully communicate it to people who may have no idea what bluegrass is. They just can tell it’s good and different and authentic.
Bluegrass has never seen the likes of him in its 75 year history, and still in his 20s, he’ll be a force for a long time to come.
Bluegrass Grammy nominee