Letters 10-24-2016

It’s Obama’s 1984 Several editions ago I concluded a short letter to the editor with an ominous rhetorical flourish: “Welcome to George Orwell’s 1984 and the grand opening of the Federal Department of Truth!” At the time I am sure most of the readers laughed off my comments as right-wing hyperbole. Shame on you for doubting me...

Gun Bans Don’t Work It is said that mass violence only happens in the USA. A lone gunman in a rubber boat, drifted ashore at a popular resort in Tunisia and randomly shot and killed 38 mostly British and Irish tourists. Tunisian gun laws, which are among the most restrictive in the world, didn’t stop this mass slaughter. And in January 2015, two armed men killed 11 and wounded 11 others in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. French gun laws didn’t stop these assassins...

Scripps’ Good Deed No good deed shall go unpunished! When Dan Scripps was the 101st District State Representative, he introduced legislation to prevent corporations from contaminating (e.g. fracking) or depleting (e.g. Nestle) Michigan’s water table for corporate profit. There are no property lines in the water table, and many of us depend on private wells for abundant, safe, clean water. In the subsequent election, Dan’s opponents ran a negative campaign almost solely on the misrepresentation that Dan’s good deed was a government takeover of your private water well...

Political Definitions As the time to vote draws near it’s a good time to check into what you stand for. According to Dictionary.com the meanings for liberal and conservative are as follows:

Liberal: Favorable to progress or reform as in political or religious affairs.

Conservative: Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditions and limit change...

Voting Takes A Month? Hurricane Matthew hit the Florida coast Oct. 6, over three weeks before Election Day. Bob Ross (Oct. 17th issue) posits that perhaps evacuation orders from Governor Scott may have had political motivations to diminish turnout and seems to praise Hillary Clinton’s call for Gov. Scott to extend Florida’s voter registration deadline due to evacuations...

Clinton Foundation Facts Does the Clinton Foundation really spend a mere 10 percent (per Mike Pence) or 20 percent (per Reince Priebus) of its money on charity? Not true. Charity Watch gives it an A rating (the same as it gives the NRA Foundation) and says it spends 88 percent on charitable causes, and 12 percent on overhead. Here is the source of the misunderstanding: The Foundation does give only a small percentage of its money to charitable organizations, but it spends far more money directly running a number of programs...

America Needs Change Trump supports our constitution, will appoint judges that will keep our freedoms safe. He supports the partial-birth ban; Hillary voted against it. Regardless of how you feel about Trump, critical issues are at stake. Trump will increase national security, monitor refugee admissions, endorse our vital military forces while fighting ISIS. Vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence will be an intelligent asset for the country. Hillary wants open borders, increased government regulation, and more demilitarization at a time when we need strong military defenses...

My Process For No I will be voting “no” on Prop 3 because I am supportive of the process that is in place to review and approve developments. I was on the Traverse City Planning Commission in the 1990s and gained an appreciation for all of the work that goes into a review. The staff reviews the project and makes a recommendation. The developer then makes a presentation, and fellow commissioners and the public can ask questions and make comments. By the end of the process, I knew how to vote for a project, up or down. This process then repeats itself at the City Commission...

Regarding Your Postcard If you received a “Vote No” postcard from StandUp TC, don’t believe their lies. Prop 3 is not illegal. It won’t cost city taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal bills or special elections. Prop 3 is about protecting our downtown -- not Munson, NMC or the Commons -- from a future of ugly skyscrapers that will diminish the very character of our downtown...

Vote Yes It has been suggested that a recall or re-election of current city staff and Traverse City Commission would work better than Prop 3. I disagree. A recall campaign is the most divisive, costly type of election possible. Prop 3, when passed, will allow all city residents an opportunity to vote on any proposed development over 60 feet tall at no cost to the taxpayer...

Yes Vote Explained A “yes” vote on Prop 3 will give Traverse City the right to vote on developments over 60 feet high. It doesn’t require votes on every future building, as incorrectly stated by a previous letter writer. If referendums are held during general elections, taxpayers pay nothing...

Beware Trump When the country you love have have served for 33 years is threatened, you have an obligation and a duty to speak out. Now is the time for all Americans to speak out against a possible Donald Trump presidency. During the past year Trump has been exposed as a pathological liar, a demagogue and a person who is totally unfit to assume the presidency of our already great country...

Picture Worth 1,000 Words Nobody disagrees with the need for affordable housing or that a certain level of density is dollar smart for TC. The issue is the proposed solution. If you haven’t already seen the architect’s rendition for the site, please Google “Pine Street Development Traverse City”...

Living Wage, Not Tall Buildings Our community deserves better than the StandUp TC “vote no” arguments. They are not truthful. Their yard signs say: “More Housing. Less Red Tape. Vote like you want your kids to live here.” The truth: More housing, but for whom? At what price..

Home · Articles · News · Features · The Amazing Billy Strings
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The Amazing Billy Strings

Bluegrass phenom takes Northern Michigan music scene by storm

Robert Downes - November 19th, 2012  

Billy Strings was practically born into bluegrass: his mother’s water broke while she was attending a birthday party packed with musicians and baby Billy was born with the echo of guitars and banjos in his ears.

Either that or Billy made a deal with a dark stranger at a lonely crossroads at midnight… Whatever the case, he has an almost supernatural ability on guitar, banjo and mandolin that has set the region’s bluegrass and folk scene on fire.

Blessed with the voice of an old soul from the mountains, a gentlemanly air, and the ability to sling hundreds of notes with razor-crisp precision at the speed of a machine gun, Strings’ flat-picking talent seems almost beyond comprehension to veterans of the local bluegrass scene, especially given his youth.

Local legend has it that dozens of jaws hit the floor when 19-year-old Strings walked into the celebrated Round Up open mic at the Hayloft outside Traverse City last summer and started to play.

“There was a stunned silence and then thunderous applause -- he just tore the place down,” recalls Bill Dungjen, who hosts the popular show that airs weekly on WNMC-FM. “In walks this punk kid that no one’s ever heard before and he was incredible.”

Strings has since become a regular at the Hayloft’s Thursday night show and is in high demand to join musical acts across the region. Meanwhile, he says the veteran players at the Hayloft have become “like a family” to him, and he frequently pitches in to back up other musicians onstage.

“What surprises me about Billy is that he’s still around,” Dungjen says. “We’ve seen a lot of hot players come and go, but the cool thing about Billy is he’ll play anything with anybody at anytime and he’s not so serious about it -- he just likes to play.”


Born in Lansing and raised in Morehead, Kentucky, Strings’ family eventually settled in the small town of Muir in Ionia County, Michigan.

“I was born on my grandpa’s birthday, so they named me after Grandpa Bill,” says Strings, who just turned 20 and whose given name is William Apostol. “I got the name Billy Strings from my Aunt Mondi, who was a real spiritual, hip Indian lady. She’s the first person who called me that -- she said ‘look at little Billy Strings play’ when I was a child.”

Some people are born to play music -- Jimi Hendix is said to have played a broom as a child in lieu of a guitar -- and such was the case for Strings.

“There was always music in our house and when I was three years old I got a plastic toy guitar,” he recalls. “There’s a video of me sitting in my high chair playing music. I guess my dad thought I had rhythm.

“When I was four, we were walking through an antique store in Ionia and I saw an old guitar there,” he continues. “I threw a fit -- I had to have it -- and my dad had hardly any money, but he paid $25 and that was my first guitar.”

Thus, at the age of four or five, Strings started accompanying his father, Terry Barber, who was an accomplished musician himself. “I started playing rhythm for my dad on songs like ‘Beaumont Rag,’ ‘Salt Creek’ -- fiddle tunes and straight bluegrass.”

Strings got a better guitar at the age of six and started playing at pickin’ parties at his uncle Brad Lasko’s campground, Barkus Park, in the small town of Lyons.

“There was always picking going on, partying and sitting around the fire playing music,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood.

“Music is what my life revolved around,” he continues. “I wasn’t interested in school, girls or sports. I wanted to be like my dad, a guitar player. I always looked up to my father for inspiration.”


Between the tutelage of his banjo-playing uncle Brad and his father, Strings was soon astounding audiences, both at the campground parties and at bluegrass festivals.

The acclaim is something Strings grew up with, and has learned to modestly accept. Even as a child of seven he was wowing musicians in their 80s who’d played for decades. “It always means so much to me when really seasoned musicians like Bill Dungjen or (noted local banjo player) Harry Dornan praise me,” he notes. “It feels good, but I know I’m a kid and have a long road ahead of me.”

But what’s a ‘long road’ for some could end up a short walk to fame for Strings, who quickly caught the ear of the region’s top musicians when he moved to Northern Michigan a year and a half ago.

A 2011 graduate of Ionia High School, Strings decided to move north at the urging of a friend who was looking for a roommate.

“Ionia is a really small town and there’s not much to do there, so people resort to drugs and getting in trouble,” says Strings. “I wanted to get away from all that and get a fresh start. I also started choosing my friends a little more wisely.”

He landed a job at the Grand Traverse Resort, but didn’t get involved in the local music scene until a performance at the now-defunct Loading Dock’s open mic opened his eyes to the possibilities.

“I had never done a solo performance, but I played some songs that I loved and got so much encouragement that I thought, ‘hey man, maybe I can do something with this.’” Since then, he’s been recruited for several projects. Currently, he’s recording a live CD with mandolin pro Don Julin, and has also joined the bluegrass band M-23 Strings with Kurt Westie, Paul Kirchner and Marlene Wood, who have released their CD, “New Highways.”

“I’m also recording a solo thing, playing guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocals, everything,” he says.

SONG SELECTIONS Strings loves to play old, nearly forgotten songs whose roots are lost in history. “The Preacher and the Bear,” about a minister hiding up a tree, for instance, “must be from the 1800s,” he says. “No one knows who wrote it -- it’s been passed down for generations. My dad learned it from his dad, who learned it who knows where.”

“The Cuckoo,” “Soldier’s Joy,” Red- Haired Boy” and other bluegrass staples popularized by acts such as Bill Monroe and Flatts & Scruggs are high on his list, but Strings has also written his own tunes which come off as modern classics.

“I wrote ‘Dust in a Baggy’ in about two hours,” he says of what is perhaps his most popular song. “It’s about a friend of mine who went to prison for five years because he got caught with some methamphetamine. He got out of prison and went straight back in; he did the same thing and got 20 long years for some dust in a baggy.”

What about the tattoos that cover his arms and chest?

“I love art, whatever it is -- I live for art.

Whether it’s someone painting a picture or writing a song or brewing beer… My skin is a canvas and the tattoos are about songs.”

Those tattoo-song references include a cowgirl, John Henry’s 9 lb. hammer, and plans to put a banjo on his knee.

HEART BELONGS TO BLUEGRASS Strings has dabbled in other musical genres. He got a Squire Strat electric guitar at the age of 11 and played blues and classic rock tunes by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and Black Sabbath. Then came his heavy metal period until the age of 16, followed by some time in “a poppy band playing stuff chicks really love -- sappy, but with an edge.”

But inevitably, he gravitated back to bluegrass.

“Looking back on what I played, it was all nonsense,” he says of his rock period. “I played bluegrass throughout my whole childhood and it will be in my heart forever. A lot of people say that if you can play bluegrass you can play anything, and when I started playing rock, I realized that I already knew these styles.”

Strings likes the purity of the music and the rough-cut edge of the raw recordings he’s making with Don Julin with only a condenser mic between them. He has no use for guitar synthesizers or effects pedals.

“I love all of these new bluegrass bands coming along, but a lot of their recordings tend to be too good, too polished, too produced,” he says. “I like those old recordings on a tape recorder mic that were made up in the mountains, where you can hear feet tapping in the background, a baby crying, and a beer can opening. That to me is what bluegrass is all about -- it’s earthy, organic.”

Billy Strings performs almost every Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Hayloft’s Roundup Open Mic on W-72 outside TC. You can also see him this Wednesday, Nov. 21 with Ron Getz and The Accidentals at Little Bohemia in TC. You can also check out video of him playing on the Northern Express Video Seen page at www.northernexpress.com .

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