Abigail Washburn has resisted categorization from the start of her relatively young career. She plays banjo with the traditionalist all-female string band Uncle Earl, but released a solo album in 2005 that included, alongside old-time chestnuts, a couple of songs written and sung in Mandarin Chinese. That year she also put out a deceptively modest EP with the Sparrow Quartet, which she formed with her banjo mentor Bela Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen. The five-song disc only hinted at the quartet’s stylistic expansiveness, and at the options it made available to a singer and songwriter of Washburn’s imagination and talent.
Both are given plenty of rein on this spirited and elegant album, produced by Fleck, which permanently removes Washburn from the ranks of revivalists and puts her in a broad if loosely defined art-folk community with musicians such as Joanna Newsom and Nina Nastasia, whose work expands the possibilities of folk idioms in personal and unpredictable ways. In Washburn’s case, that means a mingling of Appalachian banjo tunes, traditional Asian forms (mostly Chinese, but one song is called “A Kazakh Melody”) and jazz inflections.
Hybridization is a tricky business, particularly in the realm of “world music,” where literal-minded forced marriages often produce something less than the sum of their parts. What Washburn understands, either implicitly or explicitly, is that folk forms themselves are often hybrids of one kind or another. (Consider the phrase “Appalachian banjo tune,” which describes an alloy of African, English and Celtic cultures, forged over a century of cross-fertilization.) And hybrids work best when they make sense in some intuitive, non-academic, non-gimmicky way to their creators.
Washburn’s forays into Chinese forms, such as the breathtaking “Taiyang Chulai”, don’t feel like exoticism for the same reason the native midwesterner’s Appalachian appropriations don’t: Both are built on an affinity that goes well beyond mimicry or high-minded tribute. Washburn majored in East Asian studies and has spent a lot of time in China off and on for the past dozen years. She came to its music by way of its language, which she is reported to speak fluently. I have no way to judge the fidelity of her pronunciation or pitch, but the key from the perspective of a western listener is that her vocals on a handful of Mandarin-language songs sound comfortable and unaffected. The same is true of her singing in English, for that matter; she has a strong and pretty voice that she does not try to contort into some exaggerated mountaintop wail.
But the 28-year-old’s linguistic and cultural dexterity is just the starting point of the adventurousness on display here. The Sparrow Quartet is a real ensemble, not a backing band, and most of the music was written collaboratively. All four members show a fluid ease in moving between conventions and genres, and sometimes in abandoning them altogether. It is hard, for example, to categorize a song such as “A Fuller Wine”, with its rolling banjos, chugalug fiddle and swooping, sonorous cello. The complex arrangement picks up the melody of Washburn’s vocal line and plays it out in variations that ricochet back and forth, transforming what could have been a piece of pleasant coffeehouse folk into something much richer.
The same thing happens on other tracks, from the moody blues of “Strange Things” to the superficially straightforward string-band rave-up “Banjo Pickin’ Girl”. Despite the presence of two banjos — and despite one of them being played by Bela Fleck — the bowed instruments really set the tone of the album. Washburn and Fleck trade licks and provide propulsion, but the interplay between Sollee and Driessen creates the stylistic bridges that support Washburn’s melodic and cultural explorations (which include, I should note, yodeling).
The result is an unusual and unexpected album, one that inches toward some global-folk ideal without sacrificing anything by way of specificity or peculiarity.