Abigail Washburn: World Music "Rock Star"

My fellow Americans, you just might have missed it: banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn has become a roots/world music rock star on the British music scene. With added persuasion from her outstanding touring band, her latest album, City of Refuge, released in January of 2011, was a top-ten critics pick of the year in fROOTS and Songlines, Britain’s leading roots/world music magazines. In May of 2011, Washburn graced the cover of ROOTS and last week she was one of four finalists in Songlines’ artist of the year award.

In the U.S., Refuge has gotten strong reviews but less than the UK’s royal treatment. It wasn’t among the Times annual picks or on the many best-of annual lists on NPR’s audacious music web site. It did turn up as number 27 in the No Depressioncommunity’s top releases of the year.

Why the Anglo-American disconnect? Do Brits and other Europeans, given their location and enduring cultural connections with their former colonies, embrace a broader palette of multicultural musical influences? Abigail Washburn’s current work certainly fits that eclectic bill. It’s an uncommon hybrid of indie pop, Chinese and other East Asian influences (Washburn has lived in China and speaks Mandarin), and of course, American roots music.

There are many moving parts in this broader discussion: Does the United States still embrace vestiges of musical and cultural isolationism? Our internal cultural diversity, of course, is second to none. (although we do melt much of it down via American pop music)  Do our exceptional domestic musical assets distract us from overseas influences?

Some of our top artists, of course—Ry Cooder, YoYo Ma, and Washburn’s husband, Bela Fleck--have been passionate in creating hybrid music that reaches beyond our shores. And college campuses and other venues periodically host leading lights on the international scene. Still, when did you last  listen to Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Titi Robin, Kala Ramnath, or Bassekou Kouyate? --all world music artists of the highest order.

When I spoke with Washburn’s symbiotic musical collaborator Kai Welch after an October 2010 concert by the band at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, he agreed that the group's music would have been impossible two generations ago. How the world has contracted!  Back then, (my own salad years in the late 1960s), America’s idea of world music (the term, of course, hadn’t been coined) entailed Latin Jazz, jazz meets bossa nova, Olatunji, Makeba and Masakela, and, of course, George Harrison sitar riffs.

Co-conspirators Washburn and Welch
Through his songwriting and indie sensibilities, Welch—a gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist--has nudged Washburn toward greater emotional resonance.  (Her previous cd, the Sparrow Quartet, with a violin, cello, and two banjos, was no less multicultural, but many considered it too cerebral.)
Like  Sparrow, Refuge offers beautifully nuanced arrangements and ensemble playing, but it’s far more grounded, more emotionally immediate. And when you hear the group live (as in the clip below), you’ll appreciate its improvisational prowess as well. That clip is from a video accompaniment to Bob Boilin’s show on NPR. Prepare for musicianship that is disciplined yet adventurous in support of genre-transcending music. So forgive me for the earlier label of world music rock star!

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Comment by Julie Wenger Watson on May 8, 2012 at 3:55am

Interesting post. Thank you. I've read often about Abigail Washburn and Sparrow Quartet. Although I've had the pleasure of seeing Casey Driessen play (he is amazing), I've never seen Washburn. I'm going to have to make an effort to catch her show and to get some of her music. 

Comment by david vartanoff on May 8, 2012 at 1:22pm

A dissent here.  I was blown away by Sparrow Quartet when I saw them, but disappointed seeing the current lineup.  First (at Yoshi's in SF) the drum and base were mixed way too high for my taste, and frankly, what I guess you call indie pop is not always my cup of tea.  I should note that my "world music" likes happen to include pipa music which I fell into in the 80s.   I applaud her effort at widening her horizons, but I also hope she takes another turn.

Comment by Lou Wigdor on May 8, 2012 at 6:41pm


Last fall, pipast Wu Man came to town (Amherst). One of the world's great string players and boundary-stretching  artists. Her latest disc, on Traditional Crossroads, is musical dim sum.


Comment by Mr Edyoulis on July 27, 2012 at 9:55pm

Abby and Kai are a terrific duo.  I thought the Sparrow Quartet was fantastic both times I saw them.  Abby is on a roll.

And I saw Kala Ramnath the other week with Gabe Witcher on dobro and Ty Burhoe on tabla.  Wonderous.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.