There have been a lot of instrumental bluegrass albums recently, all of which have featured expert playing and acoustic pyrotechnics. What few have managed to capture is the sheer fun of playing bluegrass.
Young North Carolina banjo player Tray Wellington’s new album, Black Banjo (out May 13 on Mountain Home Music), is roots music played at the highest possible level, but it’s also music that came from dancing. It was meant to uplift and celebrate the music’s origins among white and Black working-class musicians.
Black Banjo features plenty of impressive playing, but it’s also just a joy to listen to. You get the feeling that Wellington really loves to play this music, loves to gather with friends to pick, loves to write compositions that showcase instrumental power but have catchy melodies and loping rhythms.
There’s also a strong through-line of jazz on the album, with Wellington turning in a laid-back version of jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s modern chill classic “Strasbourg/St. Denis,” and a creative reworking of John Coltrane’s seminal “Naima.” That’s entirely appropriate, of course. Bill Monroe’s vision of bluegrass has always shared a surprising amount of connection to jazz aesthetics: well-dressed musicians in listening spaces, showing off improvisational skills while spinning simple songs into far-out territories.
As one of the few well-known Black artists in bluegrass, Wellington carries a heavy load. Though there’s been much support for him recently—the main stage at the IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass, features on David Holt’s State of Music—institutional support can cover up the fact that spotlighting so few Black voices in the tradition is not only shameful for our present age but goes directly against what bluegrass meant at its creation.
It’s wonderful now to have a bandleader like Wellington tying together as many of these threads as he can and inspiring multiple generations with his new album, but Wellington is pushing hard against the mainstream of bluegrass. As he says in this interview, “I need to be a beacon of hope for this music, to show people that I’m Black and I’m doing this. I love the music, and I’m not going to let other people take things I love away from me.”
Black Banjo is available HERE.