More Black musicians playing traditional Americana music, attracting new audiences

Tray Wellington (Left) and Don Flemons.

More Black musicians playing traditional Americana music, attracting new audiences
February 21
04:06 2023

By David Winship

Black roots run deep in the fertile soil of American traditional music. When the Black Banjo Gathering convened in Boone, North Carolina, in 2005, it started a renaissance and recognition of traditional Black string band music which has flourished in America and around the world. 

Influential traditional musicians, such as North Carolinian Joe Thompson, provided guidance and inspiration for this next generation of musicians. The formation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddons, and Justin Robinson, brought performing on the banjo, a traditional African instrument, and other traditional Black instruments to a wider audience. Singing traditional spiritual and secular tunes has been a springboard to increased recognition of Black traditional and contemporary music in the Americana field.

Solo recording and performing careers have blossomed in the last decade, following the 2010 Grammy-award win for members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and others. Riannon Giddens gathered three additional banjo-picking Black women musicians, Amythyst Kiah, Alison Russel, and Leyla McCalla, for their critically-acclaimed ‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’ project. Dom Flemons has pursued a solo career with the moniker “The American Songster,”  as a performer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, music scholar, and radio host. His 2018 recording, ‘Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys,’ was Grammy-nominated.

This spring, Flemons will release his new album, ‘Traveling Wildfire,’ of primarily original material, which will be available in March on Smithsonian Folkways records. The title song, “Traveling Wildfire,” was written at a time when floods from Hurricane Ida and fires in California prompted him to write about “changes that are happening within people spiritually and mentally and there is a lot that is being thrown at people.”

“When I was coming up with these particular numbers for ‘Traveling Wildfire,’ I wanted to have a flavor of very traditional country & western music that could also reflect the Black experience from my perspective,” Flemons says. “I’ve noticed that people are wanting to hear more Black country music that reflects both their culture, environment, and values, while still sounding like it’s rooted in tradition.”

Giddens continues her touring schedule, often with Francesco Turrisi, behind her most recent recording project, ‘They’re Calling Me Home.’  She also released a book in fall 2022 based on the song “Build A House,” which was composed for the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. Performed with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Giddens depicts a family’s resilience in the face of violence and sorrow. The stirring text is paired with moving illustrations by Monica Mikai. “Build a House” confronts the history of slavery in America by telling the story of courageous people who would not be moved and who were sustained through many challenges by music. 

Closer to home, Tray Wellington is a contemporary banjo player who received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2019 Momentum Instrumentalist Award, as well as the Momentum Band as a member of Cane Mill Road. His Tray Wellington Band pushes the boundaries of bluegrass music and in 2022, he released ‘Black Banjo.’ He serves as communications manager for Pinecone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music.

The seeds of the heritage of the Black musicians who have come before are growing in the new young musicians who are nurturing the music, expanding audiences, developing their own sounds, and providing enrichment, education and entertainment for the world.

David Winship is a collector of vinyl records and host of the weekly show Vinyl Reflections on WEHC 90.7 FM on the campus of Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. He lives in Bristol, Tennessee, and is a member of Winston-Salem Writers.

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