Bayla Davis – experienced banjo picker at 15

If you read our recent coverage of the second annual Abingdon Fiddlers’ Convention last month, you will have seen the name Davis pop up all over the youth category winners lists. In fact, Newfound Gap, an old time band made up of three of the seven Davis siblings, not only took first place in their divisions, we also featured them in our cover image.

We were in touch recently with the oldest of the Davis siblings, banjo player Bayla, who has attracted a good bit of attention for her music, which at only 15 years of age, is quite a distinction. Many other fiddlers’ conventions have awarded Bayla and her brother and sister top prizes. She has won youth banjo at Galax, and Newfound Gap has performed on the Kid’s Stage at IBMA World of Bluegrass, and at MerleFest, Folkmoot, Shindig on the Green, and on the Woodsongs Kids television/radio program.

Twice Bayla has received the IBMA Fletcher Bright Memorial Scholarship for Béla Fleck’s Blue Ridge Banjo Camp, and last year was invited to play a solo set for the assembled students and faculty. Demonstrating her facility on the five string and a confident singing voice, she showed herself to be a engaging performer as well.

Bayla Davis has also been involved this summer with the Fine Tuned Project, an initiative of the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina to mentor young traditional music artists in western North Carolina. Experienced veterans of the scene are paired with emerging artists to perform and record, and Bayla has been working with Appalachian singer, multi-instrumentalist, and educator, Cary Fridley.

Their recordings, along with those of five other mentor/mentee groupings, will be included on a new album, Fine Tuned, Volume One, set for release this summer.

We asked Bayla a few questions about her music.

How were you first attracted to the banjo?

I was first attracted to the banjo when I was six years old. I had a goal to participate in every hobby that started with the letter B, because my name started with a B. I remember asking my mom about sports I could join, or instruments I could play, and she told me the only instrument she could think of was the banjo. I didn’t pay much attention to my goal for awhile, but later my mom found an ad for the local JAM program and remembered how I mentioned wanting to play the banjo. She took me to the JAM program at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, and that was where I had my first lesson with Ben Nelson.

Do you play roll style as well as clawhammer?

I do play the three finger style, but not very well…. I started this past fall after my siblings and I started traveling around the Southeast attending fiddlers conventions and festivals. I noticed that most of my banjo playing friends knew only Scruggs or rolling style, and I wanted to learn so I could jam with them more easily. My current teacher, Josh Goforth, has taught me the basics and a couple of songs, but I look forward to learning more at the Béla Fleck Blue Ridge Banjo Camp again later this summer. I especially enjoyed learning and jamming with Kristen Scott Benson and Mark Schatz. After the JAM program, I continued learning clawhammer style with Jerry Sutton and Bryan McDowell.

Tell us about your siblings who also play.

I am the oldest out of seven kids in my family. The six oldest play (since the youngest is 3, he is too young). The three oldest, Bayla Davis (Me), Sylvie Davis, and Judah Davis are in a youth old-time band called the Newfound Gap Band. Sylvie is 13 and has been playing almost as long as I have. She is an incredible old-time fiddler, and has won multiple youth conventions such as the Surry County Convention and Yadkin Valley Convention, and has placed fourth for the last two years at Galax; she’s placed higher at many other conventions throughout the Southeast. She greatly admires fiddlers Bobby Taylor and Roger Howell, who has always supported Sylvie. She likes playing with him very much.

Judah has been playing guitar and is a natural. His teacher is Jerry Sutton, who Judah calls “the greatest guitar player of all time.” He attended the Bryan Sutton Blue Ridge Banjo Camp for the last two years, and working with its instructors has greatly influenced his playing and impacted his life. The youngest three are Emme, Everly, and Asa, who have each been playing around a year or two. Emme plays mandolin and upright bass. Everly plays banjo, and soon dobro, and Asa plays fiddle. Ollie noodles on Judah’s guitar.

The Newfound Gap Band travels around the Southeast playing gigs, attending events and festivals, and competing in conventions, but hopefully we can participate in shows and concerts together as we get older. We’ve been honored to place first in many fiddlers conventions such as the SC Fiddlers Convention, Abington Fiddlers Convention, Alleghany Fiddlers Convention, and others. We travel most in the summer when public school is out, and my parents are on break from their teaching positions. There are events during the school year that our schools have supported us in attending such as the IBMA, Woodsongs, and MerleFest. And when I recorded for the Fine Tuned Project, they supported me while I recorded and participated in a press day.

How did you like recording in the studio?

I LOVED recording in the studio. I told Brandon Johnson that I would do it every day if I could. We recorded both songs in one day, and I remember walking into my little studio room being super nervous. There were so many tools and equipment that I was worried I was going to be overwhelmed, but the producer (my personal teacher Josh Goforth!) was so kind and helpful and made it so much fun to record. I got to record with one of my best friends Marlee Merritt, who is a multi-instrumentalist (at 16!) and an amazing performer. I also got to perform and record with my mentor, Cary Fridley, who is an amazing vocalist and a master storyteller.

We all had so much fun recording and we each learned so much. I really hope I can be able to do it again in the future. Laura Boosinger was super supportive as was David Holt. I was fortunate to have Mr. Holt’s SS Stewart fretless banjo, which is around 150 years old. I played that for Rueben’s Train on the album. 

What do your friends at school think about your banjo playing?

Most of them don’t know how seriously I take it. I love sharing with my peers that I play bluegrass and old time music, but I don’t think they are aware of how the bluegrass and old time communities are a different world. Sometimes I wish I could go to an arts-based high school, but most arts schools revolve around classical music, and I know that it couldn’t work. However, all of my friends are super supportive and love hearing me play. There was even one time in my science class in eighth grade that my friends played Newfound Gap on YouTube in front of the whole class, and that was super funny. When I am older, and if touring doesn’t work out or I can’t make a living off of it, I have considered starting or working at an arts based school that focuses on teaching Appalachian, bluegrass and old time music. 

Keep an eye and an ear out for Bayla Davis, and all of her talented siblings, as they mature into top level artists. Well done all!

Pre-orders for Fine Tuned, Volume One are enabled now online.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.