Abigail Washburn - spinning unlikely but true tales


Abigail Washburn tries out a title for her autobiography, should she ever get round to writing it, and decides that ‘Buy a banjo and be an instant success’ isn’t going to work.


“No-one would believe that that’s actually what happened,” says the Illinois-born singer and songwriter who is in a select group of people who are fluent in both the clawhammer banjo style and Mandarin Chinese. “In fact, I’m not sure I’d believe my own life story over the past eight years, but it’s true.”


In 2003, Washburn, a Sinophile from a childhood that was spent hero-worshipping world leaders rather than pop stars, was about to go and study international law in Beijing. She’d been to China often, had passed the requisite exams as a non-national Chinese speaker and was really preparing to move to China permanently.


“So I wanted to take something with me that was essentially American,” she says.


She hit on an idea. She’d buy a banjo and learn one or two songs that she could sing either to herself to remind her of home or should some sort of informal cultural exchange situation arise. At this point, Washburn’s musical experience was thin – her most recent involvement having been to sell merchandise for her then boyfriend’s bluegrass band. She’d always sung, mostly in choirs or informal groups, but her youthful efforts at studying the flute and piano hadn’t amounted to much, generally due to her being able to play back what her tutors played to her but having no interest in the discipline of learning from written music.


However, having bought an old-time banjo and fingered her first chords, she set off on what she laughingly refers to as her “farewell tour”, a six-week jaunt round parts of America that she’d never visited, and she was sharing the three songs she’d learned with a crowd assembled in the lobby of an hotel at a bluegrass convention in Louisville when she was offered a record deal.


“My next and last stop was Nashville, where my boyfriend at the time had moved to work with a bluegrass-pop band,” she says. “And I was on the train headed there the next day when the guy from the record company phoned and said, ‘You know, this isn’t a dream, we really want you to make a record for us.’ So the first time I ever played banjo in front of a microphone was in this super-duper recording studio in Nashville, just weeks after I’d bought my first banjo.”


The rest of the story is, she says, equally improbable. After meeting mandolinist KC Groves in Nashville, Washburn was invited to join Uncle Earl, the dynamic ‘all g’earl” bluegrass quartet who wound up having their second album, Waterloo, Tennessee, produced by Led Zeppelin bassist and bluegrass fan John Paul Jones. She then combined her love of China with American roots music and chamber music in the Sparrow Quartet, which also featured the man she married last year, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck (they spent their honeymoon in Scotland, at Kilmartin by Loch Ness after Washburn celebrated her thirtieth birthday here in 2009), and is now two albums into her solo career, having released the splendid City of Refuge towards the end of 2010.


“I never dreamed I would become a musician,” she says. “I was going to be one of those people who made a difference. We moved around quite a lot when I was young and in Minneapolis, where we moved to from Washington when I was twelve, when my schoolfriends were listening to whoever was the pop star of the moment, I was reading books of quotations by Abraham Lincoln. I was also always fascinated by China; I’m not sure why but it seemed such a mysterious place until you get there and discover that the people there have the same needs and concerns as everyone else.”


Having graduated from Colorado College, as the school’s first major in East Asian studies and Mandarin, she spent some time in China before returning to the US to work as a lobbyist in local government in Vermont. She also taught English as a foreign language and one of her experiences from that time found its way into a song from City of Refuge, Dreams of Nectar.


“I used to go a lot to one particular Chinese restaurant in Vermont which was staffed by a group of Chinese men who had come to America to set things up so that they could bring their families over,” she says. “One day, one of these men came up to me. He was crying and because he knew I could read Chinese, he showed me a letter that he’d got from his wife back home that day. She was saying, ‘You’ve been there for four years and there’s no sign of you sending for us, so it’s best if you stay there and we stay here and forget about a life together.’ That’s actually quite a common story and the way I worked it into the song made it, I hope, universal, as all folk music should be.”


Songwriting appears to have come quite easily to Washburn, although she’ll tell you otherwise. The first song she ever wrote, Rockabye Dixie, won the ultra-competitive songwriting contest at the massive Merlefest bluegrass celebration in North Carolina, and just to underline her ability to think creatively in her second language, the second song she wrote, the title track from her first album Song of the Travelling Daughter, was in Chinese. Again there’s a universal theme at work as her lyric was inspired by an eighth-century Chinese poem in which a mother unwinds the threads of a jumper she has knitted for her son because he has been lost at war.


On City of Refuge she was assisted by her current touring partner, Kai Welch, a multi instrumentalist whose apparently bound for glory indie rock band, Tommy and the Whale, formed in 2007, stalled, allowing Washburn, eventually, to persuade him to work with her.


“Kai’s a brilliant talent and has his own album due out about now but his attitude to the banjo initially was like a lot of other Americans – he just wasn’t interested,” she says. “It took about eighteen months for us to connect and start making music together and then it became quite natural. I don’t know if we’re going to keep working together – I hope we do – but for the moment I’m just enjoying playing the songs from City of Refuge and I’m especially pleased to be playing them in Scotland again because it’s become such a special place to me.”


From The Herald, July 2011.

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