Tray Wellington Expands on His Progressive Bluegrass Sound With ‘Detour to the Moon’: ‘I’ve Always Considered Myself an Explorer of the Banjo’

The lyrics to hip-hop artist Kid Cudi’s 2009 song “Pursuit of Happiness” include the lines “I’ma do just what I want/ Looking ahead, no turning back.”

Those lyrics also serve as a musically freeing anthem for bluegrass artist and banjo virtuoso Trajan “Tray” Wellington, who includes a fleet-fingered, hip-hop-tinted bluegrass version of the tune on his seven-song project, Detour to the Moon, out July 12 via Mountain Home Music Company.

“I’ve always considered myself an explorer of the banjo. I always try to look at it as exploration within music and always pushing boundaries,” the 25-year-old Wellington tells Billboard. “I think within roots music, a lot of the time it can get stagnant and people feel like they have to do a certain avenue and appeal to this or appeal to that.”

Wellington grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and counts his grandfather’s CD collection as his first brush with musical infatuation. Initially, Wellington began playing electric guitar, until six months later he found a Doc Watson greatest hits CD in the collection, which inspired him to learn to flat pick guitar. Then Wellington’s middle school had a Mountain Music Club, where his teacher brought out a banjo and began playing the bluegrass standard “Salt Creek.”

“I had never heard anything like it,” Wellington recalls of picking up the banjo at age 14. “I fell in love with it, and pretty much immediately put the guitar to the side and began learning banjo.”

His proficiency on the instrument was apparent even before his graduation from East Tennessee State University’s prestigious Bluegrass, Old Time and Country program, as he had already won the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)’s 2019 momentum award for instrumentalist of the year while performing as part of the group Cane Mill Road (which also earned the IBMA’s momentum band of the year award that same year).

He followed with the independent EP Uncaged Thoughts in 2020, before signing with Mountain Home Music Company later that year. He’s since performed on the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass main stage, hosted the Momentum Awards ceremony and led banjo workshops at Merlefest and Gray Fox music festivals.

Wellington’s music has always carried within it the indelible influence of jazz music, and that is apparent again on his latest outing, with his bluegrass-meets-new age take on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” while nodding to bluegrass artist Bill Keith’s 1970s banjo-spotlighting rendition.

“When I was trying to work it out on banjo, I figured out this cool chord voicing for it,” Wellington says. “I was like, ‘This makes it sound almost like a new-age sound,’ so I tried to take that and make it sound even more spacey in a way. My fiddle player at the time, Josiah Nelson, knew ‘Caravan,’ so I asked him to play the melody of ‘Caravan’ over it and it just gave a totally different vibe from any other version I’ve heard.”

Elsewhere, he offers a stunning rendering of John Hiatt’s “Lift Up Every Stone,” but also melds these re-imaginings with originals such as “Spiral Staircase.”

His sound fuses his musically progressive probing with traditional bluegrass elements. In addition to Nelson, joining him are bassist Katelynn Bohn, drummer Mike Ashworth (of Steep Canyon Rangers), singer/guitarist Nick Weitzenfeld, steel guitarist DaShawn Hickman, vocalist Wendy Hickman and Americana artist Kaia Kate. Detour to the Moon was recorded at Arden, North Carolina’s Crossroads Studios, a recording space often utilized by bluegrass luminaries including Bryan Sutton, Lonesome River Band, Doyle Lawson, and Alison Krauss & Union Station member Barry Bales.

Wellington has also made considerable strides in dismantling musical boundary lines and stereotypes with his music. Most notably with his 2022 debut full-length album Black Banjo, Wellington has been a fierce advocate for increasing diversity and representation within the genre.

“With the Black Banjo project, No. 1 was the idea that Black people invented this music; they belong here,” he says. “No. 2, and one of the biggest things I would say I face sometimes — but not as much anymore — was people trying to tell me what I need to do with my music, like ‘You have to do this as a Black musician,’ or ‘You need to play some songs on the gourd banjo,’ or ‘You need to play these songs by these people from time to time. People feel the need to say that, but it’s a very one-dimensional way of looking at how to showcase Black art in this music. Really, the best way you can do it is letting these Black individuals have prime slots to showcase their talent. I just had to realize that I’m my own musician, with my own set of influences.”

He expanded on the mission of Black Banjo by teaming with three other Black roots musicians late last year — vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Kater, bassist Nelson Williams and fiddler/vocalist Jake Blount — to form the group New Dangerfield. They released their debut single, “Dangerfield Newby,” in April and Wellington says the group is prepping to release another song later this month and are set to head into the studio to record an album later this year.

“We’re four different artists that have different backgrounds, different sets of musical personalities and what we’re trying to do now is figure out how it all works together,” Wellington says.

He says he has seen representation grow in terms of artists of color within the genre, but there is still much work to be done in terms of representation within the bluegrass genre’s audience.

“When I very first started, I don’t remember seeing many people at all that were Black,” Wellington notes. “As I got older, I started realizing a lot more and was like, ‘It is weird how there are not many people that look like me in this music.’ But I think there has been more representation and I think a lot of organizations are doing work to make sure people feel welcomed. But there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, especially within the audience spectrum, especially. I’d love to see that aspect of it grow. Musicians [are] one thing, but still, most places I go, like 95%, it’s primarily a white audience. And I think it’s as much of a mix of the musicians as well as the actual venues themselves, because there are certain places [where] just a bunch of people of different backgrounds don’t feel comfortable going. If you’re walking into a room that’s primarily white, as a person of color, you do feel like an outlier. It’s about making people feel welcome when they come in.”

While he works to advocate for greater diversity within roots music, and expand the genre beyond traditional boundaries, he also has a bucket list of artists he hopes to one day work with — including bluegrasser Billy Strings, Snarky Puppy’s Cory Henry, and singer Bella White.

“While I’m still building and still growing as an artist, I do feel like I’m getting to do a lot of cool things I’ve always wanted to do,” Wellington says. “I just got back from a short tour in Europe, and I was at the airport last night and had the realization, like, ‘Man, I started playing banjo at 14. And 14-year-old me would’ve never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now.’”

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