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From Social Worker to Banjo Player, Singer Leads Band Luray to New Genre

Mitch Teich

The band Luray may be named for a part of Virginia, but it has Wisconsin roots.

Lead singer Shannon Carey used to live in Wisconsin.  She grew up in Lake Geneva, and last called the state home when she was earning her graduate degree at UW-Milwaukee. Yet her journey to music took her far from Wisconsin - and her original calling.

"I was a social worker, I got focused on doing that, and friends and family," she says, explaining why she stopped playing guitar. "Then in 2005 or 2006, we heard this little bluegrass band in Vermont and they had a banjo and I was like, 'I think I want to learn a new instrument.'"

Husband guitarist Gabe Wisniewski, who went to Marquette, says the changes - which included a move to California and then to now-home Maryland - happened very fast.

"She was like, 'I think I'm going to play the banjo,' and then a week later she had a banjo and a teacher," he says, laughing.

But Wisniewski says it wasn't always easy to watch his wife go through such a major change and struggle.

Credit Mitch Teich
Shannon Carey and her banjo

"It's a fascinating thing to see somebody you love struggle with a creative process," he says. "It's a really profound thing to witness, to be really close to, but it's also tenuous. You hope to see your partner emerge from the other side with that feeling of victory...I'm definitely proud of where she's gotten."

Indeed, Carey says she does get a feeling of contentment when she's playing, one the rest of the band shares.

"It's such a triumph when you even finish a song and I know what it's about and I know that I'm expressing that thing that I'm trying to capture," she says. "I'm pretty peaced out."

Since Carey has reinvented herself, Luray has carved out a niche in a genre that defies most attempts to label it.  But people have tried, calling it everything from “ambient bluegrass” to “chamber folk.”

It bears some kinship, literally, to the indie folk of Eau Claire’s Bon Iver.  Carey’s brother Sean, who is a percussionist and backing vocalist for Bon Iver, produced Luray’s recent CD, “The Wilder.”

Carey hopes her own unusual music career trajectory might inspire someone else.

"That's what I love about playing music now, is that somebody else who maybe doesn't play music anymore, is like, 'Whoa, maybe I can learn a new instrument,'" she says.

Luray has a Saturday show at Linneman’s, along with Milwaukee’s Juniper Tar and the Thriftones, and played a few songs in Lake Effect's Studio C1, including “Already There."