FolkWorld #78 07/2022
© Mountain Home Music Company

Across the Western Ocean

Banjo Month

Influenced by Jazz, Tray Wellington Breaks Down Barriers on ‘Black Banjo’
Growing up in the southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Tray Wellington discovered the banjo as a teenager. Now in his early 20s with a full-length debut album titled Black Banjo, Wellington subverts the musical expectations he has felt as a Black musician by presenting banjo in a jazz-tinged, progressive style. While his influences include many pioneers of the banjo, the impact of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane is undeniable.

Deep Roots, Many Voices: A Discussion with Earl White & Tray Wellington
The Blue Ridge Music Center continues their "Deep Roots, Many Voices" series with a conversation between dancer and an old-time fiddler Earl White (of Earl White Stringband) and bluegrass banjo player Tray Wellington.

Leyla McCalla
Neil Young
Wild Rivers

What It Means to Play Banjo

Tray Wellington

Artist Video

Tray Wellington brings confidence, creativity to Black Banjo, his full-length debut.

Releasing his first singles for Mountain Home Music Company; appearing on David Holt’s State Of Music series on PBS; signing with boutique booking agency Prater Day; earning coverage in publications such as The Bluegrass Situation, No Depression and Folk Alley; being interviewed by roots music authority Rhiannon Giddens for a BBC radio documentary, and graduating from college — all recent signposts along the way in the emergence of Tray Wellington. And now, with the release of his boldly titled full-length debut, Black Banjo, Wellington is taking that momentum to a new level.

“This is a record that breaks right through subgenre boundaries,” writes Barry Mazor in a review for the Wall Street Journal. “If bluegrass is about spotlighting virtuosos, here’s a new one people will be checking in on for some time to come.”

The set ranges strikingly from old-time flavors through straight-ahead bluegrass and fresh newgrass to string band takes on iconic jazz. “In this album,” he says, “I wanted to re-envision people’s perspectives on who and what it means to play banjo. So many times people think playing banjo is for ‘white people,’ and I want to show people that that’s simply not at all the case, as anyone can play any form of music they want and whatever instrument they want. As well, I wanted to redefine and tackle certain genre boundaries people place on the banjo, with covers like ‘Strasbourg / St.Denis’ and ‘Naima’ showcasing the banjo’s versatility in multiple styles of music.”

Yet beyond those covers, Black Banjo shines its brightest spotlight on Wellington’s own compositions. Defying easy categorization, tunes such as the opening “Crooked Mind,” the moody “Unknown Days Waltz” and the driving “Georgia Turnaround” weave together elements of bluegrass, newgrass, old-time fiddle tunes, jazz and more to create a sound that is at once deeply rooted and refreshingly original. And in a step that offers evidence of his self-possession and artistic growth, Wellington also makes his recorded vocal debut on two of his own songs, including an inspired duet with Tim O’Brien that uses their two voices to underline the story of a man who can’t tell alcohol-induced dreams from reality.

To translate Wellington’s vision into a coherent yet multi-faceted set, producer Jon Weisberger turned to a core band of players with their own broad-ranging musical perspectives: guitarist Jon Stickley, acclaimed mandolinist Wayne Benson and bassist Kevin Kehrberg, supplemented by a trio of players — Carley Arrowood, Avery Merritt and Stickley bandmate Lyndsay Pruett — equally comfortable as both fiddlers and violinists. In their hands, each tune is explored to the fullest on its own terms, whether that means highlighting the old-time flavor of “Half Past Four,” popularized by John Hartford; delivering the relaxed swing of “Wasted Time”; powering through the stop-start rhythms and tricky timing of last year’s single, “Pond Mountain Breakaway,” or offering a compelling live-in-the-studio rendition by Wellington, Merritt and Kehrberg of John Coltrane’s lushly melodic ballad, “Naima.”

Throughout, though, it’s Wellington who’s in command, with a sense of confidence rooted in his identity as a creative Black banjo player. The journey to his full-length debut has been both challenging and exhilarating, and if there’s one thing Black Banjo makes clear, it’s that for Tray Wellington, his exploration of the world of music is just getting started.

Tray Wellington

Tray Wellington "Black Banjo", Mountain Home Music Company, 2022

Listen to Black Banjo HERE.

About Tray Wellington

Growing up in western North Carolina’s Ashe County, Trajan “Tray” Wellington heard a lot of music — and from the first time he heard the banjo as a young teen, he was, he says, “hooked.” Within a few years, he had joined with a few friends to form Cane Mill Road, an acclaimed band of youngsters whose wide-ranging brand of bluegrass quickly found favor with an equally wide-ranging audience. By the end of 2019, the quartet had released three well-received albums, recorded with bluegrass and Americana star Jim Lauderdale, and performed at festivals across the country, including Grey Fox, Merlefest and the IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass, culminating in a 2019 IBMA Momentum Band of the Year award — and, for Tray, individual recognition as an IBMA Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year.

With growing acclaim for his talent and a lengthening list of his own, individual accomplishments — including the release of his debut solo EP; leading workshops at Merlefest and Grey Fox; a coveted position as an assistant at banjo master Bela Fleck’s Blue Ridge Banjo Camp; a cover story interview in Banjo Newsletter; and an invitation to Mike Marshall’s prestigious Acoustic Music Seminar — Wellington decided to blaze his own musical and professional trail, showcasing with his own band at the IBMA’s virtual World of Bluegrass in the fall of 2020. He returned the following year to host the IBMA’s Momentum Awards ceremony and perform on the organization’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival Main Stage. A recent graduate of East Tennessee State University, Tray currently makes his home in Raleigh, NC, where he works with Pinecone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, when he’s not touring with his Tray Wellington Band.

Tray Wellington | Deering Live - Ep. 67: Trajan "Tray" Wellington joins us on Deering Live on the eve of his greatly anticipated solo effort, "Black Banjo", which is available from May 13th! In this episode, Tray talks to us about the inspiration behind "Black Banjo", and discusses his own experiences as a black banjo player in bluegrass music.

About Mountain Home Music Company:

Mountain Home Music Company, a division of Crossroads Label Group is a premier Bluegrass label with global distribution, representing such elite artists as Balsam Range, The Grascals, Lonesome River Band, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, The Gina Furtado Project, Kristin Scott Benson, The Cleverlys, Danny Roberts, Sideline, Unspoken Tradition, Fireside Collective, The Alex Leach Band, Carley Arrowood, Mark Stoffel, Jaelee Roberts, Tray Wellington, Andy Leftwich, Benson, The Little Roy & Lizzy Show, Sister Sadie and Ashby Frank. Established in 1993, Crossroads is a market leader in the Bluegrass, Americana, and Christian Music fields.

Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Tray Wellington, (3) Leyla McCalla, (4) Neil Young, (5) Wild Rivers (unknown/website).

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