Don Julin: The Mandolin Master From Michigan

Don Julin

Earlier this year Devon Leger over at Hearth Music sent out an email blast touting a new release he was working. It was the debut album from an old-time music duo by the name of Billy Strings and Don Julin from somewhere other than Seattle, Austin or Brooklyn. I really liked the album, and was quite impressed with some of the videos I found on the internet. In fact, I ended up sharing one recently in my highly anticipated annual (ok…this was the first year) Lazy Man’s Guide to My Favorite Albums of 2014.

In early November I got a chance to see these guys open for David Grisman and Del McCoury at the City Winery in New York. From the opening notes, their set decimated the room and left the audience dazed and staggering. And not from over-consumption of the white Zinfandel. While many of their videos seem a bit laid back, in front of an audience Billy channels some alternative world version of Doc Watson and Don attacks his instrument like the fury unleashed from a metal band but with the delicate hand of a fine line artist.

The energy these two men bring to the stage, never mind the mastery of their craft and a catalog of songs that seems as if it comes up from a bottomless well, makes the heart race and the brain freeze. I think on several occasions I had to make a point to lift up my chin to shut my mouth, because it was a jaw dropping set. Although I knew Billy was young with Don being the older of the two, at times it was hard to tell which was which. I even developed this little theory that the duo was really a ‘put on’…that Don was really in his twenties but wearing makeup, fake beard and a costume, and Billy had one of those rubber masks to hide his true age and identity.

The day after the show I reached out to Don and asked if I he wouldn’t mind doing a new fangled type of interview. Meaning, we traded emails and finally settled on some questions that I’d be able to ask and he’d write a reply to. Cut and paste journalism. Below is the outcome, and I think the story of the two men coming together, along with Don’s personal journey, makes for a very interesting read.

Q. Far from Appalachia and based in upper-Michigan, how did you discover the mandolin and eventually get into the bluegrass/old-time world? Or less politely, where the hell did Don Julin come from? And were you able earn a living while raising a family by staying local, or did you need to get out on the road?

A: I started playing mandolin in 1979 at the age of 19 after hearing the first DGQ (David Grisman Quintet) album. I started playing a few open mics and coffee house type gigs and realized that I really liked playing live music in front of an audience. At the same time, I was enrolled in the local community college studying music theory. I became friends with a couple classmates and we started jamming a bit in our free time. In Traverse City Michigan we had, and still do have this great college radio station (WNMC) that at that time featured a variety of new music including reggae, ska, punk, avant-garde jazz, etc. We were all attracted to that sound so we started a band called the Microtones. It realized that my favorite instrument may not be well suited for this music so I went to the local music store and bought a Fender Stratocaster. We played some dances and benefits and eventually got good enough to record two 45’s and take the band on the road playing college bars around the Midwest for a few years.

Around 1988 I decided to settle down, get married, and start a family; which meant playing gigs close to home, running a small demo recording studio, doing some live mixing for other bands and any other form of music related activity that could generate some income. Remember, I was about to become a daddy and them diapers can be expensive. It was that same time, that I put down the Strat and picked the mandolin back up. I started gigging around town playing any type of music I could on the mandolin, eventually getting into electric mandolins so I could play with louder electric bands and jazz combos with drums and horns. I started giving mandolin lessons at a local music store to help make ends meet and found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. For the most part I stayed pretty close to home for 24 years while my kids were growing up.

A few years ago William Apostol (AKA Billy Strings) moved to Traverse City and started getting some attention. He has a large repertoire of traditional bluegrass songs and knows the Doc Watson style better than anyone I had ever played with. This gave me a chance to play some of the music that first attracted me to the mandolin. I have had a great time making the transformation from the eclectic mandolin guy that could be seen playing Bob Marley, Frank Zappa, Antonio Carlos Jobim or Miles Davis, to a bluegrass mandolin player trying to incorporate the styles of Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, David Grisman, and all of the great bluegrass mandolin players. What I found is that not only is the mandolin built for bluegrass, but bluegrass is built for the mandolin.

Q: When I plugged your name into a Google search, it came up with what seems like a million hits for a book called Mandolins for Dummies, which came out in 2012 and has great reviews. I also found a You Tube video shot at some festival of you performing with David Grisman, and the two of you together are pretty captivating. Had you met before that, and can you share about about your book?

A: The video of Dawg and I was actually shot at the 2011 Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz California. I first attended the Mandolin Symposium in 2009 as a student and was invited back in 2011 to assist by leading the swing/jazz jam sessions held nightly after the faculty concerts. That is where I became friends with many of my mandolin heroes including Dawg, Mike Marshall, Andy Statman, Don Stiernberg, and others.

In 2011 I was approached by Wiley publishing about the possibility of authoring Mandolin For Dummies. After a fairly long qualifying process they offered me a contract on the book. Apparently I had the skill set they were looking for. I could play a variety of music on the mandolin, had some teaching experience, could produce standard notation and tablature, had a small studio in my basement were the audio tracks could be recorded, and knew a lot of top level pros that I could go to for specific techniques or advice if needed. I actually ended up reaching out to many of the worlds best mandolin players for specific techniques.

There is a chapter on Dawg music which David personally proof read and approved, a chapter on blues mandolin which Rich DelGrosso contributed, a chapter on Irish mandolin which has some great tips and techniques as shown by Marla Fibish, and a bluegrass chapter with some exercises from Mike Compton. The book has been successful enough for Wiley to offer a contract on a second, book entitled Mandolin Exercises For Dummies, which was finished and released earlier this year.

Q: When I got to see you onstage with Billy Strange, whom I believe is in his early twenties, the first thought I seriously had was that you both might be acting…or playing roles in a play. He sounds older than his age, and you seem younger than your bio. Can you clear that up…just how old are you guys and how did you hook up as a duo?

A: I am 54 years old and Billy is 22, which proves that music is really a global language that transcends things like age. We do have different interests off stage but we both share the same intense love of music. We met simply because we live in the same town. Billy is an amazing musician and can play many years beyond is age, but offstage he is clearly a young guy having all the fun that he should be having at that age. His youthful energy most likely does keep me a bit younger and maybe my experience mellows him out a bit. It seems to be a good match on and off the stage.

Q: Based on the audience reaction and some glowing reviews I’ve read for the album, it feels like the two of you are about to really take off. Is this something you guys did as a one-off project, or are you committed to riding it out as duo? I see you’ve signed with a booking agent, which indicates to me you’re in for the long haul. If so, is this the first time for you to commit to traveling on the circuit, or have you done it previously in another incarnation?

A: We are both committed to taking this as far as we can. We recently signed with a great booking agency and are currently talking to several managers. It started out as a local project to play a few gigs around town and has turned into a full time touring operation. Before I had kids I was traveling on the road with the Microtones but we stayed primarily in the Midwest. Now that my kids are grown, I am free to travel more so this opportunity came at the perfect time for me.

Q: From my observation sitting in the audience, you and Billy offered up energy and intensity that really connected from the first note. I love duos, and yours is one of the better I’ve come across. How has the reaction been on your other gigs?

A: You saw it! It is like that night after night. We feel very lucky and sometimes even question the enthusiasm. We just go up on stage and do what comes naturally.