Abigail Washburn and her Traveling Banjo
Abigail Washburn never dreamed that she would become a professional banjo player. Her plan was to become a lawyer. Ironically, it was her love for China—she lived there, visits regularly and has a deep connection to the Chinese people—that inspired her to pick up the banjo. “My Chinese friends would ask me, ‘What’s cool about America?’ but the things that I was proud of, like democracy and human rights, didn’t translate well,” she says. “They were dividers rather than connectors.”
Five years into her time in China, however, Washburn heard the music of the legendary Doc Watson and knew she was on to something special. “I wasn’t sure what kind of music it was,” she says, “but it felt like home.” Washburn then picked up a banjo and started translating songs into Chinese. “I didn’t think I’d be a banjo player,” she says, “but once I started playing I realized what a great window it is into what’s true and beautiful about America.”
A couple of years later Washburn was “noticed” at a bluegrass festival, and a recording contract followed. In 2005 she released Songs of A Traveling Daughter, a well-received merging of American roots music with Chinese musical styles and language. In 2008, she released Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet with her husband, banjo superstar Bela Fleck. On her latest release, 2011’s City of Refuge, Washburn branched out into the world of indie rock. “For years I was mostly in the company of the acoustic string community, but I ran into some cool indie guys and we started making music together,” she says. “It immediately felt really special—a huge cross-pollination for all of us.”
The album features Kai Welch, who co-wrote many of the songs, Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), Chris Funk (Decemberists), Bill Frisell and producer Tucker Martine, to name just a few, and reaches comfortably into indie-rock territory with its instruments, textures and rich orchestrations. But the album still has plenty of roots to go around. “The songs were strong enough that they had a centrifugal force that just wouldn’t let them go out of bounds,” Washburn says.
In making City of Refuge, Washburn has found yet another way to do what she loves. “The whole reason I play and sing is it to reach out to people and find the commonality,” she says. “These songs serve as my offering for the kind of world I want to live in. This is my offering, what’s yours? Let’s meet at the table and find the common ground.”
This article originally appeared in the Santa Cruz Weekly