Though he’d never played the banjo before, when Ayden Young first laid hands on his uncle’s instrument, it only took a few minutes before he was picking out a melody.
That was six years ago.
Now Ayden, 17, and his 12-year-old brother Blane play and sing bluegrass nearly every week at venues in and around their southwest Virginia hometown. Including the rush of engagements they booked around the holidays, Blane estimates that in the past year they performed 50 times.
“It’s a lot,” Blane said.
A look at family history reveals how the brothers went from homeschooled students to in-demand purveyors of a musical form that predates them by decades.
Melissa Young, Ayden’s mom, pointed out that neither she nor her husband Chad play any instruments. But she did make sure that her sons took up musical studies soon after they started homeschooling in kindergarten.
“Early on, I knew [Ayden] was very gifted,” Melissa said. He quickly showed proficiency on the piano and the guitar, and his talent emerged again when he picked up his uncle’s banjo at age 11.
“I saw it was another stringed instrument,” Ayden recalled. “So I said, let’s try it out.”
Blane recounted a similar story about how he chose the mandolin. When it was his turn to start taking music lessons, he began by perusing local music stores and examining all of the instruments. One day he took a mandolin from the display and handled it.
“I decided I wanted to learn to play,” he said.
They started performing together about three years ago. Since then, they’ve become regulars at the nearby Floyd Country Store, which routinely books musicians and dance acts. They’ve also played at their church, retirement homes, community centers, theaters—just about any place they’re invited.
An Ear for the Classics
The style of their play and performance is inspired by their grandfather on their mother’s side.
“He had so many bluegrass records,” Ayden said. “I was exposed at any early age to all the classics.”
This included listening to songs by Earl Scruggs, a bluegrass pioneer who in the 1940s popularized a picking technique that helped transform the banjo into a lead instrument. His legacy is evident in the rapid fingering of the brothers when they take turns performing instrumental solos—known in the parlance of the genre as “the break.”
“Most of their stuff is fast,” Melissa said, adding that, “people are quite wowed” when her sons display their technical abilities.
Ayden said he and his brother have good chemistry, which helps them get the most out of their crowd-pleasing numbers. But one area where they do engage in friendly debates is how and when each plays his featured solos.
“We try to give each other an equal amount on the break,” Ayden said. When he does cut into a solo, he maintains the bluegrass tradition of improvisation. “I try to be different every time I play,” he added.
That doesn’t mean Blane won’t critique his older brother’s playing. For example, he weighs in on whether Ayden’s solo keeps the song moving at the proper pace.
“We’re brothers, so we don’t always agree,” Blane noted with a laugh.
Seen and Heard
One thing they do agree on is how much they enjoy the current arc of their career.
Their audiences often consist of older listeners, Ayden explained.
“I truly think the older generation appreciates it, because it’s the music they grew up on,” he said. “Seeing the smiles on their faces, and them tapping their toes—it just brings me joy.”
Another inspiring event occurred when Ayden and Blane played with James Easter, the last surviving member of a gospel bluegrass band that formed in the 1950s. (He died in December 2021.)
Easter was playing at a music store in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where musicians are welcome to drop by and sit in. Blane and his brother happened to stop by and were able to join the jam session.
“You just grab an instrument and start playing,” Blane said. “It was incredible.”
Growing Where You’re Planted
The brothers are content to share their talents with their community. Unlike when they started out, they now earn an income from performing—but that doesn’t mean they are ready to press for a bigger stage.
“I don’t want to go to a Nashville setting and play with a big band,” said Ayden. “I am happy playing here locally with my brother for as long as I can.”
The brothers added that they do hope to keep developing musically.
In 2022, Ayden took first place in youth banjo at the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention, and first place in adult banjo at the Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention. And in June he took on his first banjo student. Blane placed first for youth mandolin in those competitions as well.
Most of all, Ayden wants to encourage other young people to find their talent and develop it. He wishes to do this by impressing upon listeners and students that his musical ability is a gift.
“It’s me giving the glory not to myself, but to God,” Ayden said. “I have to remind myself of that constantly. I give all my talent back to God, because he gave it to me.”
Photo Credit: Photos are courtesy of the family.