Growing up, Gregg Robbins-Welty would cup his hands tightly over his ears to obscure the punchy tones that emanated from his dad Eric’s banjo.
“I hated that loud, twangy sound,” said the 20-year-old Mercyhurst University biochemistry major from Mayville, N.Y., who’s working toward medical school and a career in geriatrics.
But midway between childhood and adulthood, Eric Welty’s passion for bluegrass and banjos began to take root in his son and, in what may very well be a “first,” this father and son tied for fourth place at the National Bluegrass Banjo Championships held last weekend at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas.
“Just getting in the top five is a huge accomplishment in the banjo world,” Gregg said. “It’s totally unheard of for a father and son to both make it.”
Ironically, Eric Welty won the same event 20 years ago and, having achieved that pinnacle, quit the competition circuit but continued playing around the house to Gregg’s chagrin. In no time, though, Gregg found himself hankering to play an instrument. He started with the guitar and the mandolin and before he knew it Cripple Creek and Buffalo Gals had become part of his musical vernacular.
“It just happened,” said Gregg, who is in his senior year at Mercyhurst. “After playing the acoustic guitar, I began to develop an appreciation for my father’s banjo playing. He must have seen it, too, because when I was 16, he bought me my first banjo.”
In true like father like son form, Gregg discovered he was a pretty good banjo player. He began competing, traveling cross-country to festivals and contests, flying for free, thanks to Eric, an American Airlines pilot. He only began the competition circuit two years ago, but already Gregg has plucked his way to numerous victories:
2013 Indiana State Banjo Champion
2012 Gathering in the Gap (Big Stone Gap, Va.) Banjo Champion
2012 & 2013 4th place Texas State Banjo Championship
2012 3rd place Maryland State Banjo Championship
It was the Texas State contest in 2012 that lured Gregg’s father out of retirement. Gregg was flying into Dallas, where Eric is based, and asked his dad to drive with him to Houston for the championship. Eric agreed, but not without a contingency: “OK, but I can’t let you have the title unless I compete against you.”
Gregg was fine with that; the friendly rivalry became a bond that energized them both. That year in Texas, neither took home the gold, but Eric won second and Gregg, fourth.
Meanwhile, sharing fourth with his dad at Winfield this past Sunday was incredible, but Gregg’s already got the 2014 nationals in his sights. He’s off to Alabama for his next competition, then Maryland, and then the Mid Atlantic Championships. When he's not on the road competing, he practices his music with a couple local bands, South 79 and the Haybalers.
Despite the unrelenting commitment, Gregg said his banjo playing is strictly a hobby. He’s equally passionate about becoming a geriatrician, influenced by the dedication of his mother, Dawn Warner, a nurse, and his late grandparents, who helped raise him in Mayville.
He also credits Mercyhurst for the education he has received here, and for the student-faculty bond that has enabled him to pursue both his education and the hobby that he loves.
“I had two tests on Monday and I figured I wouldn’t get back in time from Kansas, but both my professors understood and told me to go for it,” Gregg said. “They know me, they know my dedication and they said I could make up the tests. I figure if I were at a larger school, I’d never get that kind of break. So, I’m definitely grateful to Mercyhurst.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that the chair of Mercyhurst’s chemistry/biochemistry department, Clint Jones, Ph.D., is a rock musician who toured for six years with the band Medicine Man. Jones still plays, guitar mostly, although he admits bluegrass isn’t quite his thing.
But Gregg’s willing to overlook that. “I still think we could jam a little one of these days,” he said.
Knowing the Weltys' propensity for competition, that probably could be construed as a dare. Dr. Jones?