Vilai Harrington hails from a background as diverse as any. His grandparents hail from the Carolinas, MidWest and Hawaii. Growing up his musical interest were greatly shaped by his Father, Grandfather and Mom's desire to shield him from the shallow lyrics of pop artists.
Therefore, the music he heard and learned to love were the sounds of Hank Willaims, Sr., Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Pete Seeger, the Beatles and other classic artists of the 50s. 60s, 70s, & 80s like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dean Martin and Prince. While the music spanned decades and genres, it had one thing in common....meaningful lyrics and true soul. Growing up, Harrington always enjoyed singing but did not take naturally to instruments. He always loved them but felt out of reach. One day his grandmother came home with an old Sears-Roebuck banjo with only one string. The young boy was intrigued. The banjo was sold soon but the seed had been planted. Throughout high school, he played trumpet, bass guitar and an old ukulele of his dad's for school praise band with friends. After high school, Harrington was gifted his own banjo. He then started to look more at himself musically. Soon he was writing music and lyrics. Now based out of Greenville, SC. Vilai Harrington travels through the U.S. sharing his eclectic story through the eyes of a Clawhammer troubadour.
"Soul filled folk music with Appalachian roots. Some of your work reminds me of what church hymns would sound like if they were for mother earth." - Adams Mitchell; Co-founder and writer for Creases Zine
"Folk On! Aiken born folk musician Vilai Harrington has recently released a self titled album that carries with it the classic down to earth sound that has made Vilai known around the region. Opening with ‘The Hike’ and a lovely ballad called ‘Pour Life’ the album begins as Vilai did with humble roots from which a vibrant tree grows. The album crescendos and climaxes with a very toe tappin’ tune called ‘Saddle Back’. The album is a truly is a quarter-hour of raw folk emotion. Vilai’s picking style along with the way he sings across the melody creates a sound that is both minimalistic and room filling." - Rick Stahman; Co-founder and writer for Creases Zine
MORE ABOUT THIS ARTIST FEATURED ARTIST - OCTOBER 2015
Music and more from this Artist
Vilai to Garris
ARTIST INTERVIEW — The Banjo Reserve interviewed Vilai Harrington, here's what he had to say.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A. I played ukulele when I was younger, when I got to the banjo I was already more familiar with open tuning. I tought myself banjo, I did look up the major scale, but other than that I learned by messing around on it and listening to other banjo players. I also surrounded myself with my friends who where all better than me.
Honestly, I think the best method of learning is to find the basics and then go off on your own and develop your own style. Take constructive criticism from your peers but do not lose your originality.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A. Finger roles have always been tough for me. I have always just naturally leaned towards clawhammer more than flat picking.
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. I would still like to progress more on my roles. I also have been trying to challenge myself to work on my complex licks that fill out my songs a little bit more. I tend to focus more on the lyrics when writing, but I want to make it where my banjo playing makes the words shine even more.
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. I see that people accept the banjo as being good for more than just Bluegrass. Banjo is such a versatile instrument and there are so many artists out there that are rewriting what it means to be a banjo player. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of sharing a show with Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees, a brilliant musician who has seen some of the potential in the instrument that most people have overlooked. I also see more people like myself playing a lot of their acts solo with just banjo and vocals. Most people would not think of the banjo as the instrument of choice for singer-songwriters, but some of us are changing that. I am not sure exactly what my role is, but I learn more about what it should be everyday.
Q. What most inspires you to play?
A. It is a way for me to cut down on my screaming. Honestly, I am inspired by life to play and write. I am also inspired by all the other artists out there who are pouring their hearts out on stage. I remember when I was younger and my Uncle took me to the Newberry Opera House to see Ricky Skaggs, someone who has been doing it so long and is still building on what he has already accomplished. We all are still learning and we never fully mature, it is a constant progression and I find that fascinating.
Q. What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A. As an artist I have a hard time liking my own songs, but there are a few that I enjoy. One I enjoyed is one that David Garris Armstrong and I wrote together called “Highway or Interstate”. Another one I have liked is “Things to Come”, I wrote that about my great grandfather and his struggle with Schizophrenia and Alcoholism. I also like to play "Operator” by Jim Croce, that is just one of my favorite songs period.
Q. Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. Respect the classics but don’t let them define you, surround yourself with eclectic people, don’t be afraid of musicians that are “better” than you. Be bold, be full of grace and stay weird.
Q. Where do you like to play the most?
A. I have growth from every show I play, but there are a few venues that have a special place in my heart. The first place to ever give me a chance to play was M.A.D. Studios, a small listening room in Augusta, Georgia. Stoney and Leslie have always treated me like family and I would have never been able to progress at the rate I have if it wasn’t for them. The Second is The Soul Bar which is also in Augusta, GA. Jayson is one of the most laid back venue owners and a chill drinking buddy. Dave and I never had a bad night there. The last one is a House Show Series in Charleston, SC called Pop-Up Charleston. Peter, Addie, Matt and Katie are super sweet people and always set up amazingly intimate shows.
As far as memorable shows go, one of the Shows I will always remember is when I opened for The Drifters in an indoor skate park. It was amazing sharing a stage with Mo-Town Legends. And being from South Carolina you have to enjoy any concert you can shag to. Shag means something a little different here, it is our state dance.
Q. You mention that you play Clawgrass style, why did you decide on this style? Do you play other styles as well?
A. I just naturally leaned towards clawhammer, it was always fascinating to me because it is one of the oldest styles of banjo playing. Also, as a solo artist I am able to get a full sound, yet still allowed to add details that way. I do a little bit of picking as well. It is not my strong suite, but I still respect it and use it in some of my work as well.
Q. Tell us about your new CD and any special projects that you might be involved in.
A. My Project Vilai to Garris will be release as a small EP in mid-November. I am very proud of what Dave and I were able to accomplish together in such a short length of time and I think that this EP will be a great representation of our common ground and friendship. In December I will be going on the ‘Very Very Merry” Tour with my good friends Von Strantz out of Indiana. While on this Tour I will be releasing my first full length Album “As the Sandhills Roll” under my solo project Vilai Harrington. The Release party for it will be on 12/13/2015 at Moe Joe Coffee & Music House in Greenville, SC. Tickets will be on sale soon and will be available on my social media accounts.
Q. At this point in your banjo career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A. I am very proud of both of the releases that are coming out in the next few months. I feel like they will show my progression and personal growth. I am also proud of all the amazing souls I have been able to share the stage with, and the lifelong relationships that have come out of it. I met my roommates on the road about a year ago, now I consider them some of my best friends.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. I like to hike, fish, spend time with family and be outside. My mama always told me I had a green thumb. There is nothing more rewarding to me than putting your hands in the dirt and seeing the fruits of your labor on the dinner table. I also am a little bit of a history nerd and watch a good bit of documentaries.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. I am human. I like to talk to other humans. I have a lot of random facts to share with you from a childhood of reading whole encyclopedia sets and watching the Discovery Channel and PBS. I like to give hugs and have been told I give good ones. And if you need something reached off the top shelf of the grocery store, I am your guy.