Check the “Current Bands” section of Billie Feather’s website, and you’ll see no less than eight acts covering everything from bluegrass to punk. She also does the occasional guitar-tech gig and teaches pretty much any stringed instrument – guitar, bass, mandolin, ukulele and banjo (three-finger picking as well as old-time frailing) – in the Triangle as well as at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where she’s working on a graduate degree. Most Wednesday nights, you’ll find her at Durham’s High Strung Violins & Guitars leading their “Learning Jams” for honky-tonk or jazz. And on the rare free nights, she also has a for-fun pickup band, Billie Feather and the Hallway Waltz.
The volume and range of work is, she acknowledges, kind of insane. It’s only by the grace of Google Calendar that she’s able to keep track of everything.
“When I first started playing in more than one band, it was hard to manage,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to compartmentalize – set aside time for practice, or to go to the art museum to clear my head. Self-care involves learning to say no, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I never planned to do this many projects, but I’m lucky.”
Feather recently did a tour with the Hiss Golden Messenger tour that opened at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, as instrument tech – tending to guitars for Phil Cook, Chris Boerner and frontman Michael “M.C.” Taylor. And while she was trying to stay on the sidelines, it was only natural that she wound up onstage herself at Taylor’s invitation to bang a tambourine.
“Billie has a wonderfully curious energy that she brings into situations,” says Hiss Golden Messenger multi-instrumentalist Cook. “She seems to have lived a life where she didn’t limit herself of possibilities, which is the most common mistake humans make again and again. She’s refreshing and inspiring to be around.”
Now 36 years old, Feather was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in various towns in North Carolina and Tennessee before getting a Bachelor’s degree in classical guitar performance from School of the Arts. But the experience burned her out on classical.
So she started playing in country and rock bands in Winston-Salem and later the Triangle, including Snatches of Pink frontman Michael Rank’s Americana band Stag. She also got a degree in jazz studies from NC Central University. But lately, that classical background has come in handy with her primary band Hank, Pattie & The Current.
“Hank (Smith) and I have been working on preludes for string quartet and banjo,” she says. “I think we’ll have more soulgrass and classical on the next album.”
Going on the road with Hiss Golden Messenger inspired Feather to write more songs herself, with tentative ambitions to make her own record someday. But it’s hard to find time for that along with everything else. Some of her most satisfying gigs are actually the weekly “Learning Jams” at High Strung.
“Connecting with the community is therapy for me as a musician,” she says. “It’s nice to have some nights where random people get together and just play, because music has to be fun and not just a job. So much of the professional music realm is the next gig or whatever. But some of it should just be jamming on the porch with friends. Wednesday nights over there have been a nice life-changer.”