Picking her place: Banjoist Abigail Washburn settles on America
ASPEN – In 2003, Abigail Washburn knew exactly which direction her life was headed: east. Since her first visit to China, seven years earlier, the Illinois native had been obsessed with the country, and planned to make her life there. She had been accepted to a law school in Beijing and envisioned a career in law, or maybe business.But even before she set foot on the China-bound plane, Washburn started to feel tugged back homeward. On a six week, farewell-to-America road trip, she was offered, very much out of nowhere, a recording contract. The pull was not only business-oriented, but also cultural; Washburn was becoming deeply affected by old American music styles: black gospel, Appalachian string music, the early Mississippi blues singer Skip James. Her interests could be esoteric, evidenced by her fondness for music from the Georgia Sea Islands, sung in Gullah, a hybrid language created by the slaves who had been taken from various African regions.When Washburn launched her music career, China was still very much a part of her. Her 2005 solo debut album was titled “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” and featured a pair of tunes sung in Mandarin Chinese. As time passed, and it became clear that the idea of being a lawyer in China was being bumped aside by a career as an American musician, Washburn’s attachment to Chinese music grew stronger. In 2008, following several state-sponsored concert tours of China, Washburn released an album credited to Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet. The album – which featured Washburn’s husband, Bla Fleck, as a second banjoist – was even more Sino-centric than “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” and included “Great Big Wall in China,” the folk song “Kangding Qingge” and an overall Asian flair. For a year or so, while Fleck and the other members of the foursome – fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee – had time in their schedules, the Sparrow Quartet toured extensively (including a sold-out 2009 show at the Wheeler Opera House), with Washburn indulging her love of Chinese language and melodies.Now the traveling daughter seems to be settling in fully as an American. On “City of Refuge,” released last month and credited solely to Washburn, the Chinese influence is made nearly invisible. The singing is all in English; the melodies and rhythms are from the Western world. Some of Washburn’s Asian cohorts make contributions – the throat-singing duo of Yiliqi & Batubagen, and Wu Fei, who plays the guzheng, a Chinese version of the zither. But these sounds are a small part of the vast, dense soundscape that is “City of Refuge,” an album that features over 20 musicians (not counting the 15-voice choir on “Bright Morning Stars”), playing strings, tuba, pump organ, drums, electric guitar and more.”I didn’t feel a need to force a Chinese song into the record,” the 33-year-old Washburn said from her home in Nashville. The Chinese aspect “is a part of who I am and I don’t feel a need to shout it out to the world. On the earlier two albums, it was real obvious that was part of my M.O. for creating music. This record, it feels more integrated. On ‘Song of the Traveling Daughter,’ it’s more on the surface of the communication.”••••Washburn was introduced to bluegrass while attending Colorado College, in Colorado Springs. The style was foreign to her Midwestern ears, but she was interested. When she walked into a room where Doc Watson’s version of “Shady Grove” was playing, curiosity turned into something bigger. “I don’t know why, but I couldn’t get enough of it,” she said. “I listened over and over.”Coincidentally, “The Watson Family,” an album by Doc Watson and various relatives was re-released around the same time. It led Washburn to explore more old-time music. She especially craved compilations of 1930s recordings, like the Yazoo label’s eight-album “Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be.” “These compilations go from urban gospel to Appalachian fiddle tunes, and I loved the whole array. I love that question of what ties together those styles, and how can it connects me to my roots in America,” she said.Washburn first got a banjo in 2000, and for several years it mostly sat unpicked. When China became prominent in her plans, she gave the instrument some attention, but her goals were modest. “I wanted to work up a small repertoire for when I was in China,” she said. “In China we’d go out for karaoke, and I’ll pull out the banjo and sing some American ballads and people will love that. Because in China, they really love cultural exchange.”Washburn’s artistic aspirations were elevated, step by step, on the 2003 road trip. In West Virginia, she attended a fiddler’s camp at the Augusta Heritage Center, and learned the “central repertoire” of old, American music. She hit Nashville for the International Bluegrass Music Association conference. While jamming in a hotel hallway – a common occurrence during the conference – something extraordinary happened. A producer offered to record her demo. Washburn demurred at first – “I wasn’t good enough. I hardly knew what I was doing,” she said – but soon she jumped at the chance. China and law school faded from her mind. As she launched her own music career, she also accepted an invite to join the established female string band, Uncle Earl.”I started hearing things clearer about what I should do with my life,” Washburn said. “Things were new, and I didn’t have to go in a proscribed way any more.”Which still holds true. With the Sparrow Quartet, Washburn became known as the banjoist who incorporated Chinese music into American string styles. But on “City of Refuge” – which features significant contributions from producer and drummer Tucker Martine and singer and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch – Washburn was bold enough to see herself in a different way, as a musician exploring her native soil.”My whole deal with music was, it showed me the path back to America,” said Washburn, who brings her new quintet to the Wheeler on Tuesday, Feb. 22. “It got me obsessed with my roots in this country, rather than some other country. That is the brunt of why I became a musician.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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