The Short Story
Bill and the Belles is a Johnson City, TN-based band known for combining a stringband format with their signature harmonies, candid songwriting, and pop sensibilities. Their latest project, “To Willie From Billy” (released September 8, 2023), pays homage to icon Willie Nelson with a sound that remains unmistakably Bill and the Belles. Bill and the Belles is Kris Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle, banjo player Aidan VanSuetendael, and bassist Andrew Small. The group has a knack for saying sad things with a bit of a smirk, and anyone who’s been to one of their shows can attest that you leave feeling lighter and refreshed. This is a band that revels in the in-between: deeply engaged with the stringband tradition and eager to stretch those influences to a contemporary setting. A timeless place where Jimmie Rodgers and Phil Spector can overlap, and a driving fiddle and banjo tune makes way for a sentimental parlor song. And while Bill and the Belles’ latest chapter offers a bigger, moodier, and more decade-ambiguous sound, they maintain their status as the most refreshing stringband around.
The Longer Story
Bill and the Belles’ latest album, To Willie From Billy, is a tribute to Willie Nelson, released in honor of the American icon turning 90. It is a bold and playful meeting of the stringband’s origins and genre-defying arrangements, and a celebration of Nelson’s songwriting and musical ethos. It is that musical ethos that ties Willie and Billy together: a commitment to timelessness and simplicity, with a good dose of rebellion.
It's a daring endeavor to make an album of all covers, especially after having just published an album of all original music (Happy Again, 2021). Some may find the tribute surprising, and while it is true that the band could have done a Jimmie Rodgers cover album with their eyes closed, Willie Nelson has particular significance to lead singer and guitarist Kris Truelsen. The two have a lot in common: boundless energy, a defiant nature, two character-rich figures that fearlessly integrate a broad range of influences. Just as Willie redraws musical boundaries time and time again, Bill and the Belles has been a hardworking band unafraid of pushing the boundaries of genre from the get-go. Beginning as an oldtime stringband exploring the sounds between rural and urban, Bill and the Belles developed a sound wholly their own. Early fans of the band were hooked by their harmony singing, and To Willie From Billy delivers stellar vocal arrangements that nod toward 60s girl groups.
To Willie From Billy was recorded in the summer of 2022, and in addition to the core band (Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle, banjo player Aidan VanSuetendael, and bassist Andrew Small), Bill and the Belles is joined by Ric Robertson (Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Grisman Project) on keys and electric guitar, Nick Falk (Hiss Golden Messenger) on drums and percussion, Don Eanes (Morgan Wade, 49 Winchester) on piano and B3, and John James “JJ” Tourville (the Deslondes) on pedal steel.
Where Willie’s Demo Sessions from the 60s (from which 5 of these songs were sourced) feel like a late night listen, To Willie From Billy has a bit less smoke in the room. The tracks shimmer, presenting refreshing interpretations of a range of Willie’s songwriting history. There is a particularly moving rendition of “On the Road Again,” a hard-hitting reflection on the loss of live music during the height of the pandemic and a reminder to not take its return for granted. Some tracks recall the intimacy of Willie’s Demo Sessions (Remember the Good Times, Things to Remember), others feel like familiar country romps (Undo the Right, Old Fashioned Karma, Three Days, Gotta Get Drunk). The rest of the album offers bigger, more ambitious tracks, building on the band’s recent foray into decade-spanning Americana (Shotgun Willie, Will You Remember Mine, Waiting Time, Pretend I Never Happened, Permanently Lonely). Bill and the Belles play the songs of the man who taught the world about the beauty and challenge of simplicity, and the strength in being an original. To Willie From Billy is a warm and compelling salute to one of country music’s greatest.
Meet Bill and the Belles
KRIS TRUELSEN (guitar, vocal) As Program Director of WBCM Radio Bristol, a community radio station and branch of Birthplace of Country Music, Kris leads all programming initiatives. Launched in 2015 on a successful crowd-funding campaign led by Kris, Radio Bristol has become a staple for those interested in regional country and roots music. Kris hosts Radio Bristol’s flagship show “Farm and Fun Time” which syndicates on PBS television throughout the south. He also tours internationally with his band Bill and the Belles who have built a dedicated fan base over the last decade. A skilled and prolific songwriter, Kris’ songs are featured throughout Bill and the Belles’ catalogue. He also has a knack for writing jingles, many of which have been recorded for corporate and nonprofit use.
KALIA YEAGLE (fiddle, vocal) Not many people teach roots music at a university full-time and perform the music professionally–Kalia is on the cutting edge of both. A deeply intuitive musician, musical ideas and connections come naturally to her, the kind of instincts that emerge from having been steeped in music since early childhood. Kalia grew up in Alaska, where long winters and strong, diverse communities have produced a music scene unlike any other. Her music has always been boundary-defying, while remaining grounded in the wisdom of tradition. Kalia has been a teacher almost as long as she’s been a musician. Sharing knowledge is at the core of who she is, and she can be heard sharing her infectious love of music and craft in classrooms, from stages, at workshops, and on podcasts. East Tennessee State University brought Kalia on board as a full-time faculty member in order to grow their Old-Time Music program in 2018, and she received the College of Arts and Sciences' 2023 Lecturer Award.
AIDAN VANSUETENDAEL (banjo, vocal) was born and raised in Stuart, Florida into a musical family. Irish music and culture was a large creative influence in her childhood due to her mother’s Irish heritage, and on her guitarist dad’s side, contemporary folk-rock and Americana was also in the airwaves. Everyone in the family played music, including her grandfather, a lover of classic country and Tin Pan Alley music. VanSuetendael attended Denison University on a music scholarship, and played banjo in the college’s bluegrass program. Poetry is her other creative passion beside music. She has had five publications of her poetry to date and is currently working on her first book. After graduating, she moved to Nashville, TN, where she currently resides. Nashville has proven to be an environment overflowing with inspiration and opportunity. With Bill and the Belles, she enjoys playing a fresh style of three-finger banjo fitting for the band’s unique genre: a mixture of Americana, old-time, country, and some new sound you can’t quite put three fingers on.
ANDREW SMALL (bass) is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and composer who served as the inaugural Artist-In-Residence for the Crooked Road - Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. Originally from Eastern North Carolina, Andrew holds a master’s degree in music performance from Yale University and has performed around the world with artists including Sierra Hull, Mandolin Orange, and the North Carolina Symphony. An avid proponent of traditional music styles from the Blue Ridge region, Andrew was selected for a Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship with master fiddler and National Heritage Award-recipient Eddie Bond of Fries, VA. In 2021, Andrew won first prize in the bluegrass category at the 29th Annual MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Andrew is a former Bluegrass Mandolin Champion of Australia and his old time string band The Alum Ridge Boys & Ashlee won first place at the 85th Annual Old Fiddlers' Convention in Galax, VA. He performs old time, bluegrass, and country music in the duo Ashlee Watkins & Andrew Small, and together they hosted the 10th season of The Floyd Radio Show at the historic Floyd Country Store. In addition to his musical pursuits, Andrew studies violin making with master-luthier Joe Thrift at the Foothills Arts Center in Elkin, NC and he is learning the art of distilling from master-distiller and old time fiddler Chris Prillaman in Franklin County, VA.