Though born in New York, Constable was raised in the Appalachian region of Avery County and discovered bluegrass when his mom married Charlie Moore while Billy was still a boy. Through his mother, Billy was also related to the Wisemans, another prominent bluegrass family in North Carolina. Lois Constable, his mom, had promoted a festival in the area for many years dedicated to her brother who had died young.
Even before he was out of school, Constable was wowing experienced pickers with his skill on both banjo and guitar, and he performed in Moore’s band as a teenager. Following Moore’s passing, Billy moved to California to play with his family band, The Constables.
Not long afterwards he was touring as a member of The Doug Dillard Band, and did stints with bluegrass legends Kenny Baker and Josh Graves. As an adult he was part of the earliest jam-grass endeavors, working with seminal acts like String Cheese Incident, Hypnotic Clambake, Leftover Salmon, and Larry Keel.
Friends remember Billy as equally comfortable in most any string music style, and he was notorious for being the last to leave any jam. But if a session was playing hard core grass, he wasn’t the sort to insist on adding modern touches, or vice versa. Whether on banjo, guitar, mandolin or fiddle, he is recalled for a distinctive, individual style that, sadly, never reached a much larger audience.
Prior to the spate of seizures that led to his cancer diagnosis about 4 years ago, Billy was performing regularly with mandolinist Mark Schimick and with Big Daddy Bluegrass.
Here’s a video of he and Schimick with Rob Parks on bass picking through a version of Don Reno’s Follow The Leader in 2013.
A Billy Constable tribute concert is being planned now for October 8 at the Isis Restaurant & Music Hall in Asheville, NC. Funds raised will be donated to Billy’s family to help cover lingering medical costs. Donations are also being accepted online.