Album Review: Tray Wellington, ‘Detour to the Moon’

With the ascension of superstar picker Billy Strings to arena shows, bluegrass is having a bit of a moment nationally. And, at least in Billy’s case, it’s been doing that without compromising the identity of a genre-bending acoustic tradition bent on virtuosic dexterity and bold creative visions. Well, the new album from North Carolina banjo player Tray Wellington certainly fits this identity. Detour to the Moon opens with two back-to-back spaced out banjo instrumental jams, “Moon in Motion 1” and the strangely named “Blue Collared Dog and His Green Eyed Friend.”

It’s clear that Wellington’s chops in bluegrass banjo have only gotten stronger as he navigates the twists and turns of newgrass with remarkable ease. He brings in some interesting new ideas as well, like a bluegrass reworking of a blues-y John Hiatt song, “Lift Up Every Stone” that features sacred steel artist DaShawn Hickman (and his wife Wendy) and fellow banjo player Kaia Kater from New Dangerfield, a new Black string band project shared between them. One of the most surprising turns is a clever reworking of hip-hop artist Kid Cudi’s classic song “Pursuit of Happiness.” Wellington taps into the confessional vibe of the song, bringing it closer to singer-songwriter territory. By doing this, he avoids the usual trap of trying to meld rap directly with bluegrass, which can feel inauthentic, and he gets to keep a couple swear words, a rarity for bluegrass which is usually squeaky clean.

Wellington told Billboard recently that he thinks of himself as an “explorer of the banjo,” and that’s certainly on display on this album. He cleverly reworks the arabesque melody of Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “Caravan” into a fiendish fiddle and banjo duet, rolling out ringing arpeggios under Josiah Nelson’s fiddle lines. It’s doubly impressive because though banjo great Bill Keith already reworked this tune into a bluegrass standard in the 70s, Wellington manages to find new chords, ideas, and directions, even while digging into the deep loam of the masters who came before.

Jazz seems to be a lodestone for Wellington, outside of his key bluegrass influences. Though who doesn’t hear jazz in a great bluegrass solo, as one player steps to the mic to improvise in a battle of wits with the band? Wellington’s original melody “Spiral Staircase” takes the jazz connection even further, pushing towards Bela Fleck territory and including a great electric guitar solo. Wellington’s new album holds together all these disparate influences and ideas pretty well, belying the fact that it’s put together from previously released singles and new tracks for his record label, Mountain Home Music Company. If he can perform this well on singles and B-sides, imagine what he can do when he’s got the time and focus to create a full length album?


 Detour to the Moon is available HERE


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