Tray Wellington talks new music and banjo picking

Tray Wellington has seen a lot happen in his music career over the past few years. At only 20 years of age, he has been singled out for a Momentum Award by the IBMA, toured all over the world, and is about to release his first solo project tomorrow, a six-track EP called Uncaged Thoughts. Not bad for a kid from a rural mountain community in western North Carolina.

As an introduction, here is a video of him winning the banjo competition in Sparta, NC in 2017.

And like so many talented young people from that region, he got a boost just when he needed it from how well the Appalachian folks keep their traditions.

“I was 13 or 14 when I first started playing. I started out learning electric guitar, then when I wanted to learn acoustic, I joined the Ashe County Middle School Mountain Music Club.

I had heard banjo on some recordings, but when I heard Josh Church play Salt Creek, I was like… what is that? And something hit me… that’s what I want to do.

I’d go up to my grandpa’s a lot, and he lots of old vinyl, all the Flatt & Scruggs Mercury stuff. I got my first banjo, a Washburn, and Josh showed me some rolls. Then I started taking lessons from a guy named Eric Hardin in the summer, and he showed me a bunch of Scruggs stuff.”

For several years he performed as a member of Cane Mill Road, along with his oldest friend, Liam Purcell, with whom he had grown up. Liam plays mandolin and fiddle, and lived just a short distance from Tray, and they had been playing together since their early teens. When Liam decided they should start a band, they initially did the sort of shows you would expect from local teens, but before long, bluegrass fans all over the country began to take notice.

A pair of albums, including lots of original music, got the attention of Pete Wernick, of Dr. Banjo and Hot Rize fame, and he leaned in to mentor the group. But as often happens with folks this age, when the members started heading off to college, time constraints and distance pulled them apart. Liam is keeping the band together, and Trey says he sees his time with CMR as a great benefit to his growth as a player, along with his sincere friendship with Purcell.

Now a student himself at ETSU, Tray has studied with several banjo teachers, including Brandon Green and Jerry Keys. But he says as his musical tastes have been leading him to more progressive grass, he has been looking more into jazz.

“It’s been good at ETSU, learned a lot since I’ve been here. I’ve been doing a little with the jazz program as well. I’m playing in a band now that focuses on Dawg music, and did one last semester that played progressive bluegrass.”

You can hear his move to a more progressive style on Uncaged Thoughts, which includes four of his original banjo compositions, and a pair of classic songs taken from two of his inspirations from the 1950s. As a nod to Earl Scruggs, he offers his take on Nashville Skyline Rag, and in honor of Charlie Parker, he created a singing, almost grassy version of Ornithology. All show his growing mastery of the instrument, and suggest a fine new voice on the five string.

Wellington has agreed to share one of the grassier tracks, one called Move Over, which he says came from a frustrating drive with no banjo at hand.

“I wrote this driving down to Asheville from Johnson City. I made up the first part coming down the mountain, and there was this one car driving about 25 miles an hour, and I kept thinking – I wish this guy would move over! Then I started humming this tune, and imaging the chords. When I got home I grabbed the banjo and started jamming with it.”

We could let him go without asking about winning IBMA’s Momentum Award in 2019, an honor given to artists in the early stages of their musical career who show special promise.

“It was really a shocker, honestly. I was standing backstage, kind of waiting around. Cane Mill Road had just played, or maybe we were getting ready to play. They called the first winner, and I thought, OK… I guess I’m not winning this. Then when they called my name, I was like… I guess I have to go up there and talk! I sure didn’t expect it.”

Tray will host a CD release concert on March 13 at the Ashe Civic Center in West Jefferson, NC. The show will run from 6:30-9:00 p.m.

Look for Uncaged Thoughts tomorrow (2/29/20) wherever you stream or download music online. It was co-produced by Tray and Scott Vestal, who engineered the album.

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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.