For islander and bluegrass musician Wes Corbett, his path to discovering the banjo took many twists and turns before cementing himself in the industry as an emerging artist.
“I actually kind of accidentally worked my way through the history of the banjo to the banjo without knowing it at all,” he said. “The roots of the banjo are actually in West Africa. Kind of a whole family of instruments that are very banjo-like were then essentially recreated with what was available to them by slaves in the south. The banjo is one of very few instruments credited with being of American descent, however, it is distinctly African.”
After years of work consisting of playing, producing and teaching music, while also traveling the country and making connections with some of the finest musicians, Corbett is now prepared to release his first solo record “Cascade” on Dec. 4 on Padiddle Records, which features another fellow island musician Simon Chrisman.
“This record is about eight years in the making if we’re talking about when they were written,” Corbett said. “I’ve thought about making this record for a long time, and I could just never quite pull the trigger on it. I had a really specific idea of how well and high-budget I wanted it to be. For a long time that felt a little bit out of reach for me. Then I decided to just do it. At some point, you got to rip the bandaid off.”
Discovering a passion
Corbett and his family moved to Bainbridge from Albuquerque when he was less than a year old. Both of his parents were artists, his mother ran Bainbridge Dance Center until she passed away in 2012 while his father was a ceramics professor at the University of New Mexico.
“I come from a pretty artsy family,” he said. “My parents said I literally came out of the womb humming. My grandfather identified that I was musical at a very young age.”
Corbett was first introduced to music through the piano when he was about 2 1/2 years old. He credits his introduction of the banjo to Seattle musician and teacher Dave Keenan. He started playing up to five hours a day starting his freshman year of high school until he graduated. He even recalled an instance at Bainbridge High School when he told a gym class peer that he was “going to be a professional banjo player” after the first lesson he ever took.
“It was just off to the races,” he said.
Another prominent connection for Corbett was seeing Chrisman play the dulcimer (Appalachian string instrument) at a Bainbridge Performing Arts concert. Corbett was only 14 and had been playing banjo for nearly six months, andChrisman was about seven years older.
“I introduced myself, and he handed me a business card,” Corbett said, stating that Chrisman told him years later that it was the only business card he ever gave out.
The rest was history for the musical duo as they started to play together locally.
“Dulcimer and banjo is not really a normal pairing,” Corbett said. “We almost didn’t even know that. Because we’re both playing instruments that are predominantly Appalachian and we were so culturally and geographically isolated from that, I don’t think either of us even knew that this isn’t a thing. We ended up with this whole language together that’s specifically just ours.”
Making a dream a reality
Corbett went on to attend the notorious music program at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita but only stayed for a year, choosing to take a deep-dive into the bluegrass music scene in Boston. There, Chris Pandolfi of The Punch Brothers took Corbett under his wing to make the transition smoother, helping him with networking and gaining exposure to bluegrass artists.
Then one day, Corbett received a call that changed his career. Legendary violinist and teacher Matt Glaser, who originally founded the strings department at Berklee College of Music, asked Corbett if he wanted to teach banjo at the school. Corbett accepted, even though he didn’t have a college degree himself.
“That’s actually a somewhat typical thing for Berklee,” he said. “They have a history of hiring musicians who they think are good musicians.”
“It was really fun to get to teach there,” Corbett continued. “It certainly made me organize my own playing in a way that I had not had to do before.”
After nearly a decade in Boston, Corbett and his wife moved to Nashville, a relocation that made sense given she was going to Vanderbilt to become a nurse practitioner, while he would be living in a region known for bluegrass.
“I heard the music scene was cool, and I had a couple of friends out there,” Corbett said. A lot of my peers were moving away, either to New York or Nashville. I kept getting older and everybody I played music with kept getting younger.”
In addition to releasing his first solo record, Corbett also joined the Sam Bush Band as its banjo player in January, a lifelong dream for any bluegrass fanatic.
“Sam was like a hero of mine,” he said. “It’s pretty trippy to get to play with him, to say the least.”
Corbett described the first time he met Bush during a recording session.
“We kind of spent this day just making this music together and goofing around,” he said, adding Bush asked him for his phone number but didn’t know why.
Bush called Corbett a week later to see if he wanted to join his band.
Now as the banjo player of one of the more prominent bluegrass bands in America, Corbett would soon have to work harder than he ever had in his life, learning 30 songs in one week, along with all the other projects he had already been working on.
“He’s this super animated and gregarious guy,” Corbett said about Bush. “People’s personalities and how they play music are directly connected. He pays attention to social stuff in the same way that he plays music with people. Not only is he an amazing musician, he also treats his band really, really well. I feel like I got the golden ticket on that one.”
Process of “Cascade”
Corbett’s intentions for his first solo record were to make something everlasting and special with his fellow musician friends, allowing for more cohesion during rehearsal and recording sessions.
“I chose these folks because they’re peers of mine,” he said. “I wanted to do something that involved my friends. I wanted to write music and arrange it with those specific voices in mind. My job as an arranger and a composer is actually to tell people what to play as little as possible. The chord changes…should tell everyone kind of everything they need to know without me needing to put it into words.”
Reflecting on the process of making the record, Corbett said they had a week to rehearse and record, which included two power outages, reducing even more time and creating a bit of stress for everyone.
“We all just piled our cell phones onto a chair in the middle of a circle, turned the flashlights on, and then rehearsed in a completely pitch black studio,” Corbett said.
Looking back, Corbett is thankful for the music, the friendships and the memories.
“I started just making friends through the bluegrass scene,” he said. “That wasn’t really something that had happened so much for me in the classical world for whatever reason. With the banjo, everything I learned was catered toward playing with other people. Once I started doing that, I just got hooked on it. Not only did I love the music but I loved the people that I met.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Corbett played just over a dozen gigs with the Sam Bush Band. Since the pandemic, the band has played four concerts, all outdoors with protocols for fans, musicians and everyone else.
Corbett said he hasn’t delved too much into virtual performances as he’s been so busy, but he has been teaching classes online and has been for years.
“Since I’ve left teaching at Berklee, I have had more online students than I’ve had in-person,” he said.
While things have been going well for Corbett as of late, the reality of paying bills has been difficult. He is thankful for his wife, who is working long hours as a nurse practitioner in the fight against COVID, going to work in full PPE.
“Emotionally and financially, it’s still been really rough,” he said. “Fifty percent of my income went away overnight” due to the lack of gigs.
Looking ahead, Corbett feels like more outdoor concerts are possible “if they’re done right” in terms of COVID protocols.
“The shows that I’ve played with Sam have been really well organized,” he said. “That gives me hope for the spring and summer.
“I am lucky enough to work with Sam who is at a certain point in his career that he’s one of the people still getting gigs. People are going to continue to book people who have a record of selling things out. The middle-class musician is really getting squeezed super hard right now, let alone folks who are playing local shows and teaching.”