Meet Tray Wellington, the Black bluegrass banjoist breaking barriers in Appalachian ‘mountain music’

Mountain music has a long history of Black artists who often go unnoticed, their stories untold. But Tray Wellington, a Black three-finger-style banjo player born and bred in mountain culture has created his own authentic sound in bluegrass music. 

Bluegrass music is traditionally depicted as overwhelmingly white, but is now shifting to an inclusive community of artists who love the sound that originates from Africa, The British Isles, work songs, hoedowns and field hollers.

For the past eight years Wellington has shown bluegrass culture what it means to have wide success as a young Black man in the Appalachian music scene. He has racked up awards, including the 2019 International Bluegrass Music Association Momentum Award for instrumentalist of the year. After recording and producing his album “Uncaged Thoughts,” he signed with a record label, Mountain Home Music.

Wellington’s drive toward a music career started in high school and followed him to East Tennessee State University and, now, as a professional musician with his Tray Wellington Band.

“Most young people have frustrations that they have a hard time expressing. Music was and is my way of self-expression,” said Wellington.

While Wellington attributes his musical interest to his grandfather, he also finds inspiration from jazz musicians John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, blues artists Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt and even popular contemporary artists such as  Childish Gambino.

Wellington recently spoke with Reckon about his experiences in the bluegrass music industry and how it has contributed to the creation of his own style. 

Reckon: What kind of obstacles have you faced as a young Black musician in the Appalachian region?

Wellington: I definitely deal with a lot of microaggressions. When I first started playing, I would have people come up to me and say, “You know the banjo is from Africa, right?”

But the spaces I put myself in now are a lot different. They respect me and my identity enough that when I confront them on what they say and how it makes me feel they take accountability. 

Now I strive to surround myself with people in this industry who are more open minded.

How can the miseducation around the banjo and bluegrass music make it hard for musicians of color? 

A lot of people are miseducated about the music I play, and I usually hear folks talk about it with a negative and conservative connotation. Bluegrass music and white supremacy are at fault for this.

A lack of representation makes it hard for people of color who want to start playing this music but don’t see themselves in the bluegrass scene. It also doesn’t help that in the past prominent figures in this music were erased or their sound was stolen. 

How has your upbringing in rural Appalachia shaped who you are and the music you make?

Growing up in Ashe County, N.C., where there is a strong mountain music community has taught me a lot about bluegrass. 

There aren’t a lot of Black three-finger-style banjo players so when I started playing there were a ton of people trying to help and support me. While in older times it was popular to see a Black three-finger-style banjo player, now it is more rare and admired. 

Because of this type of support, I received many scholarships and was able to attend and graduate from East Tennessee State University with a bachelors in music and a minor in marketing.

While coming from a small town makes you humble, I was also able to gain perspective once I moved away and went to college. I learned even more about the music I love from a variety of diverse people.  

What would you like youth of color to know about being in the Bluegrass music industry? 

Just because you are a person of color it doesn’t mean you can’t listen, love and play bluegrass music. Nothing should hinder you from playing music, especially if you like it. If you love the music, then give it a shot.

And now I am seeing even more people in the bluegrass music industry trying to make a change. It is definitely a slow start but I am seeing so much more opportunity and resources than I have before.

Where to hear Tray Wellington and his band next:

Galax, Va., Blueridge Music Center 2021 Summer Concert in August.

The Reckon Report.
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