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Emerging Americana: Nora Brown, Tray Wellington and Taylor Rae

Tray Wellington, Nora Brown and Taylor Rae were all showcasing artists at AmericanaFest 2022.

AmericanaFest 2022 is in the books, and even more than usual, I came away with a backlog of fascinating conversations with artists who don’t live in Nashville but who are making an impact on roots music. This week’s show features highlights from three interviews with emerging talent in the veins of traditional old-time, modern bluegrass and folk-rock. There’s no such thing as a representative sample of the format’s younger generation, but between Tray Wellington, Nora Brown and Taylor Rae, there are plenty of storylines that will unfold and develop in the years to come.

Tray Wellington grew up in the Appalachian town of Jefferson, NC at 2,900 feet above sea level and a population about half of that. He heard about Doc Watson, who lived not far away, as a teenager and got involved in his middle school’s Mountain Music Club, which exposed him to the banjo. He went from a casual enjoyment to hours-per-day dedication in a few years and got hired to play in the area. His band Cane Mill Road was his first professional vehicle with his peers, and in 2019 the band and Tray individually each won IBMA Momentum Awards, which recognize up and coming talent. Two things jump out. First is that Tray embraced jazz as a vehicle for his bluegrass instrument and outlook, recording tunes by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and others. Also, he’s a rare black man playing Scruggs-style banjo and earning acclaim for his innovation on the instrument. His journey on both fronts is chronicled on his dynamic second album Black Banjo, recently released by NC’s Mountain Home label.

“Even when you look at, like, the more progressive side of society, a lot of times people still try to put these barriers (around) what you must do, you know, on creative Black people… And a lot of that just gets really annoying after a while, because I'm a creative person. I'm a creative musician. And for me, it's like, the most important thing is to stay authentic and true to who I am, as a musician, playing the things I want to play, even if other people don't like them.”

Nora Brown also plays banjo, but in a completely different tradition than Wellington. Since being spotted as something of a prodigy, the old-time music world has been transfixed by this teenager from Brooklyn, NY who easily and authentically inhabits Appalachian balladry. I’d assumed she must have grown up in a home steeped in old folk music, but that’s not how it happened. As a little girl, she got intrigued by the ukulele, and her mom found a local teacher who happened to also be a champion of folk music for young people. The uke evolved into banjo, and Brown has cultivated a refined and enthralling approach to both the two-finger and clawhammer styles that define Appalachian old-time. She’s made several recordings, but all her work and growth is captured best on the new Long Time To Be Gone, a completely solo banjo and vocal effort recorded in a resonant church in New York by the boutique Jalopy Records label. Brown came across in our conversation as an easy going 17-year-old who just happens to have a very serious pursuit - as well as a growing role in leading more young folks to old Americana.

“At every performance, I probably have one person at least that comes up and says like, ‘you are the future, never stop playing,’ something like that. And yeah, I mean that is definitely pressure that I don't love, but I also understand it. You know, people get excited when they see somebody really young, wanting to play. But in my opinion, this music is not dying. I see so many young people playing it. I see so many people really interested. And I do hope that some of what I do can kind of help uplift others that are also doing the same thing. Yeah, it's kind of a unique position to be in.”

Taylor Rae is more of a conventional Americana singer songwriter, but her sound and impact have proven uncommon. She found her voice and honed her approach in her home state of California, including a vocal performance degree from UCLA, but her career got moving when shifted her base to Austin a few years ago. Few artists have made as much of their debut indie recording as Rae did with Mad Twenties, which came out in the final months of 2021. Though it started slow, the album’s serene folk rock, lush chordal language and insightful, personal songs began to catch hold at Americana radio, and it was on the album chart for many months this year, something almost unheard of for a first project without label support. Her song “Window,” which opens the album, is a colorful, silky and warm celebration of guided psychedelic experience and healing, which she speaks about unguardedly.

“It's just been incredibly healing for me. And I think when it comes to psychedelics, it's such a personal choice. I think it's our human right to explore our own consciousness. And the song is kind of just a window into that world…I've overcome some traumas that I didn’t even know I had. That's the crazy part about it. The medicine will bring up whatever it wants and you have no control over it. You can go in with intentions, of course, but if you're open to it, it will show you what you need to see.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>