Billy Strings & Don Julin: Fiddle Tune X


Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X

It seems unlikely that a phenomenally talented acoustic musician would just happen to have been born with what would turn out to be such a fortuitously descriptive name, but if you can play the guitar like 22-year old William Apostol, hey, why not call yourself Billy Strings? The Michigan native has, as the evidence of this collection suggests, absorbed a lot of the influence of his musical forbears, and at various times the keen-eared listener can discern echoes of Watson, Rice, Crary, Blake and others. This is not to say, though, that he’s apishly copying licks off of old LPs (and with three decades worth of CDs out there, I guess we have to include them too). Strings does have his own distinctive sound that emulates the acoustic guitar gods in that it is clean, clear, crisp and adheres to the maxim often expressed as “it’s not how fast you play, it’s how you play fast.”

His partner, mandolinist Don Julin, is a few years older, with a few more miles on his figurative and actual odometers. Playing in a style that seems clearly rooted in Bill Monroe’s, he too has the knack of making the individual notes stand out and be heard. Performing as a duo, they’re not a “bluegrass act”, strictly speaking, but their sound is squarely pointed in that direction. It’s worth remembering that Doc Watson and Bill Monroe performed together on a few occasions over their long careers, and listening to Strings and Julin evokes some of the fascination of hearing that collaboration.

This second release features just short of a full hour of music, seventeen tracks encompassing a lot of traditional material (“Salt Creek/Old Joe Clark”, “Poor Ellen Smith”, “Beaumont Rag” are a few examples) as well as old songs from the sources you’d expect them draw from: A. P. Carter (“I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow”), Bill Monroe (“Lonesome Moonlight Waltz”) and three selections from the Stanley Brothers canon. Also included is “Miss The Mississippi And You”, and although it’s incorrectly credited to Jimmie Rodgers (written by Bill Halley), it is primarily known from Rodgers’ hit 1932 version. The title track is a Julin original, though there is nary a fiddle to be heard on the record, and Strings contributes “Dos Banjos”, appropriately a clawhammer/tenor instrumental banjo duet.

Strings is the lead singer on the vocal cuts, and to further the bluegrass comparisons, he’s reminiscent at times of the late Red Allen. Julin adds doses of tenor harmony, not quite up in the high Monroe stratosphere, but he makes for an effective complement to Strings. They’re particularly good on “Sharecropper’s Son” (one of the Stanley tunes) and Strings’ solo vocal on “Walk On Boy” is among the album’s best efforts. Roughly half the tracks here are live recordings from an assortment of small venues, so it should come as no surprise that there’s a bit of an uneven quality throughout, but it does not detract – even on one cut where the sounds of the city outside the open window find their way to the mike.

And there is only one mic. These guys are about as “retro” as it gets, and they recorded the disc using the “old school” single mic format, dynamically mixing on the fly simply by moving toward or away from the mic as needed. And, as if to provide a final “retro” exclamation point, the closing track is the result of finding an old “make your own record” booth while visiting a Nashville studio, and trying it out. They do, it should be noted, hover in the vicinity of “jamgrass” with their extended, back-to-back renditions (more than thirteen minutes worth in all) of “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie”. Some will regard that as a big plus, others maybe not so much, but the live audience unquestionably eats it up.

On the whole, though, the main attraction here is the instrumental excellence and interplay between them. Julin is a solid veteran who knows and understands the music intimately, and despite his youth, Strings seems to have insight and savvy well beyond his years. Fiddle Tune X gives a clear picture of what it’s like to sit and listen to them in a smoky, rowdy old roadhouse, and it’s not a bad vision at all.

John Lupton

About John Lupton

John Lupton has co-hosted “Rural Free Delivery” on WVUD-FM at the University of Delaware since 1989, and has been a regular contributor to Sing Out! since 1996. For more than 25 years he has been a board member of the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, promoters of the annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, and since 1998 has been on the board of the Green Willow Folk Club, a Delaware venue dedicated to Celtic and British Isles music. John retired in 2014 after more than 35 years in the computer support business, including two decades at the University of Pennsylvania. He believes that facing adversity builds character, and while anyone can be a Yankees fan, it takes true fortitude and guts to be a Phillies fan for 60 years, as he has proudly been. John’s wife is the noted folk music photographer Jayne Toohey.

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