Banjo superhero Abigail Washburn chats about her collaboration with Bela Fleck and her visits to China
Abigail Washburn takes flight with friends Bela Fleck and the Sparrow Quartet
by B. Dutch Seyfarth
With a highly anticipated (and quickly selling) limited run of North American shows in February, neo-traditional banjo player and songwriter Abigail Washburn brings her Sparrow Quartet stateside. Perhaps best known to music fans as member of world touring folk / bluegrass band Uncle Earl, Abigail Washburn has used her project the Sparrow Quartet to embrace her love of musical elements ranging from traditional Chinese folk hymns to quintessential American influences of ragtime, Appalachian folk, and bluegrass music. Rounding out the highly acclaimed ensemble includes renowned banjo player Bela Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee, and Grammy-nominated fiddler, Casey Driessen.
For the former young college student from Colorado College studying Chinese culture who never dreamt of making music a career, Abigail Washburn has grown comfortable into her present role of American musical ambassador. After talking with Abigail upon her recent return from the Asian continent two things became fairly obvious: her deep love of music, and her commitment to promoting cultural relations and understanding between the USA, the country of her birth, and China, the country that has captured her heart.
On her most recent trip, Abigail (who also speaks Mandarin Chinese) helped assist the Sichuan Earthquake Relief organization on the reconstruction of libraries in villages destroyed by the earthquakes. Of course, who can forget the heart rending images beamed around the world in 2008 of grieving chinese villagers who lost their children to schools which had collapsed. But although witnessing firsthand the devastation wrought by the quakes, Abigail volunteered to assist the organization’s daunting rebuilding efforts by entertaining village children and their families with solo concerts performing traditional Chinese and American folk songs. Although witnessing such unprecedented destruction firsthand, Abigail cheerfully recounted bright glimmers of hope:
“These children I met in the mountain villages affected by earthquakes had been through so much. Two of the children I met in one village were the only survivors of their entire school which had collapsed. Can you imagine that? What their lives are like now? How they must feel?” After a moment of quiet reflection she continued: “Yet all of these children were amazing… not only would they sing along with songs I would teach them but, they would sing folk songs to me they knew from their mountain villages. It was an amazing experience. It was so humbling to be part of what was happening there.”
Certainly in no small part to Abigail’s many journeys to China over the years, the Sparrow Quartet’s critically lauded 2008 album certainly represents a music melting pot. The Bela Fleck produced full length album delivers vivid images of life’s everyday struggles, triumphs, and small moments of beauty as told from the perspective of two different cultures. What is most striking about the album’s 13 songs is the seamless way that the elements of both western and eastern themes combine to form music that is at times infectiously cheerful, and at other times starkly haunting. Although the ensemble blends disparate musical DNA strands from two different continents that seemingly would result in something strange and harsh, the Sparrow Quartet succeeds; indeed, it succeeds in a most beautiful way.
The Sparrow Quartet’s North American dates in February are noted below. For more information on the Sparrow Quartet please visit www.abigailwashburn.com