Billy Strings and Railroad Earth Convert a Metal Head at First Avenue


Thursday night was a whole new experience for me. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to say that again. I’ve heard all types of music and seen all types of crowds but last night was my first jam band show and the first time I had seen a real bluegrass band live, I have to say, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.

The show opened up with bluegrass superstar, Billy Strings. Billy Strings (born William Apostol) was joined on stage by three friends and they quickly had me questioning my hate for the genre. Okay, maybe hate is a strong word but bluegrass music has just never really done much for me. I understand the immense amount of talent it takes to play it and I get the influence bluegrass has had on so many genres but I still would never sit down to listen to music and chose and bluegrass band. I may have to rethink that after seeing and hearing William and his band perform.

Born in Michigan but currently based out of Nashville, TN, you can hear a bit of a twang in William’s voice as he sings but it’s not your typical country twang. It has a sense of intensity and ferocity to it that instantly had me hooked. It felt raw, as a lot of bluegrass music does, but in a completely different way. It almost felt a little punk and I think that’s why I was hooked within the first song. It wasn’t until after the second song when William was introducing the band to the quickly growing crowd that I realized there was no drummer. The fact that it took me that long to figure out there was no drummer should say enough to you. I truly got lost in the musicianship of the four musicians on stage and, had they not introduced the band, I don’t know that I would have ever noticed the lack of drummer.

The band didn’t address the crowd that many times but, when they did, you felt a sense of sincerity radiate off the stage. William joked that every true bluegrass band needed a fiddle in it, their “just happens to be a really really big bass fiddle” as he introduced the upright bassist in the group. Each member of the band seemed to have a smile on their face as they played through their forty-five minute set (at least I think it was forty-five minutes. Honestly, I don’t think I checked my phone more than once while they were on stage because I didn’t want to miss a thing). As their set came to an end, I questioned why I had been so resistant to the whole bluegrass scene. A huge thank you to Billy Strings and his band for helping me see the light.

After the success that was my first live bluegrass group, I started to wonder if I would actually end up enjoying the show. It’s not that I went into it with the mind frame that I would hate it, just that it wouldn’t be for me. Was Railroad Earth about to change my mind on the jam band genre just as Billy Strings had done for the world of bluegrass music?

With seven studio albums and the response from the crowd as soon as the band took the stage, I think it’s safe to say these guys are something close to legendary. Thanks to working at a head shop in my teenage years, I had heard Railroad Earth’s name before and had even heard their music but, let’s be honest, it kind of blended into everything else that my boss would play at that shop. I would by lying if I said I wasn’t bracing myself for a crowd full of burned out hippies like that boss of mine, the stench of weed to quickly engulf the venue, and music that could be considered background music at best. What ended up happening during Railroad Earth’s two sets was definitely not what I was expecting.

The six piece group took the stage with a sense of royalty. I don’t think that feeling was coming from the band members, more how the crowd was reacting to their every movement. Apparently there are certain times to cheer when a band is jamming out and, although I didn’t know when it was acceptable to clap, the crowd sure did. The audience had this sense of respect that completely blew me away. That’s not saying that there isn’t respect during the many metal shows I go to, but it’s a different kind that, to an outsider, doesn’t look like respect, more like a fight to the death within the crowd. As an outsider last night, I was taken aback by the way the audience would politely wait their turn to clap as the band members took turns with lengthy solos during a three minute song that turned into twenty minutes. Even with the politeness, nothing about last night’s set was boring. The crowd danced their way through both sets and and encore and never lost that undeniable sense of love that emitted from the dance floor. I don’t quite know what kind of dancing was going on down there and I watched in wonderment from my spot under the stairs and a bit higher than the dance floor. There didn’t seem to be a set way to move to the music. Everyone was doing their own thing but doing it together and it was truly beautiful.

Once I gave up trying to figure out what the correct way to dance to this music is, I focused on the band. It seemed like every member of this band switched instruments at least a dozen times throughout the nearly three hours that they were on stage. The amount of talent each of the six musicians had was immeasurable and the amount of love they have for their craft completely blew me away. You could tell that each band member cared about the tone of every single note he played. John Skehan who was on mandolin most of the night and the band member closest to me and watching him made me want to give up on any musical dreams I ever had. Each time he plucked a string on the mandolin (or whatever you do mandolin strings) it was an art. It wasn’t just him playing music, you could literally see him feel the music and that, right there, sold me on this whole jam band thing. As I scanned the stage, I realized that each band member was playing their instrument but it was like an art. It was so much more than just passion for music, it was an appreciation for it and it was something I had never seen or felt before.

Thursday night was a completely new experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect but, if I’m being 100% truthful, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of the show when I walked to the venue last night. I honestly associated the acts last night with that burned out stoner hippy boss I had at the head shop and that didn’t leave the best picture in my mind. Within the first act, I was in addicted and by the end of the first set from the headliner, I was in love.

I don’t get many new experiences these days. I’ve heard just about everything and seen far too much when it comes to live music. Last night reminded me that there is always something new out there for you to try and, if you leave your haterade at home, you may just like what you find.



  1. Good acts to open your ears. Billy is one of the best, if not the best, of the up and coming pickers.

    Railroad Earth is quite simply as good a band can get.

  2. Ha, you sound like an anthropologist discovering new cultures.

    Careful though, bluegrass is a long slippery slope with decades of history. I’ll always love Tool and Primus et al but these days I can’t get enough of Billy Strings, Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, etc. There’s more metal in today’s bluegrass than most probably know. Last year, in a set with the Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm, Ryan Adams even covered both Slayer and Black Sabbath.

  3. Langen, so happy you made this discovery. There’s a lot going on in progressive bluegrass these daze. Hope you get to hear Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters or Jeff Austin Band as further examples of that evolving genre. Some of the older Trampled by Turtles will rock you as well. Cheers!

  4. This is a fantastic documentation of your experience. I myself enjoy going to shows of all genres and appreciate virtuosic musicianship in whatever form it takes. My least favorite instrument is drums, but I appreciate great drummers, and have gone to shows mainly to see the drummer. That may sound contradictory, but the point I am trying to make is that the music I like is not defined by its genre, but by the quality and soul of the musicians making it. Like you, I discovered many of my favorite bands going to a show I had doubts about, so I urge everyone to go and see as much live music as they can! Thanks for a well written article Langen!

  5. Railroad Earth is mind-blowing, as you discovered. The best part? No two shows are the same. You can see them four nights in a row and only get a few songs repeated. You begin to look forward to what quirky combinations of songs you might get thrown your way.

    Welcome aboard the train. 🙂

    A Hobo

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