Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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Abigail Washburn and the building of cultural understanding

With the recent focus on China and its relationship to the U.S., this Saturday Soundtrack highlights a clawhammer banjo player who has spent two decades working at the intersection of past and future, using her skills as a musician and her respect for the culture and people to further and deepen connections with the Chinese.

Abigail Washburn was “miraculously offered a record deal in the halls of a bluegrass convention in Kentucky,” some 16 years ago. That encounter “changed her trajectory from becoming a lawyer in China to a traveling folk musician.” Shortly thereafter, many fans were introduced to Washburn’s beautiful voice, instrumental chops, and songwriting skills with Uncle Earl.

Uncle Earl (Photo credit: Aaron Farrington)

Videos of Washburn’s work with the band include The Last Goodbye and the acapella Easy In the Early (‘Til Sundown).

Washburn’s website bio describes the range of her work since that fateful day at the bluegrass convention.

Her music ranges from the “all-g’earl” string band sound of Uncle Earl to her bi-lingual solo release Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005), to the mind-bending “chamber roots” sound of the Sparrow Quartet, to the rhythms, sounds and stories of Afterquake, her fundraiser CD for the Sichuan earthquake victims. The New York Times praised her 2011 release, City of Refuge, written with collaborator Kai Welch, saying the the songs “mingle Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” As a duo with her husband — 15-time Grammy award winning banjo virtuoso, Béla Fleck — Abigail has recorded two albums: a self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and Echo in the Valley. Her most recent record is a self-titled debut collaboration with composer and guzheng virtuoso, Wu Fei, and sonically blends traditional Chinese and Appalachian folk tunes.

A new take on the traditional tune Shotgun Blues, is from Washburn and Fleck’s first album together and showcases the percussive possibilities of the banjo. The Reverb video is their discussion of the differences in the three-finger bluegrass and clawhammer style. And then you see a “banjo bass” (and hear some great Washburn vocals along with Fleck’s slide banjo) on My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, filmed at their house during the pandemic.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn (Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins)

Washburn has a long interest in blending traditional American and Chinese music to further understanding between cultures. With her Chinese language ability, Washburn was, before the pandemic,

…one of the few foreign artists currently touring China independently and regularly. She completed a month-long tour of China’s Silk Road…and was named a TED fellow and gave a talk at the 2012 TED Convention in Long Beach about building US-China relations through music. In March of 2013, she was commissioned by New York Voices and the NY Public Theater to write and debut a theatrical work titled Post-American Girl, which draws from her 17-year relationship with China and addresses themes of expanding identity, cultural relativism, pilgrimage, the universal appeal of music and opening the heart big enough to fold it all in. Abigail was recently named the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University and is an Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Washburn’s 2020 album with Chinese artist Wu Fei is a compelling showcase for these collaborations.

“Merging American old-time music and Chinese folksong, Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn features gorgeous, impressionistic renditions of traditional material from the hills of Appalachia to the prairies of Xinjiang region, each tune flowing seamlessly into the next. The effervescent resonances of Wu’s guzheng zither dance around Washburn’s expressive banjo playing, their voices intertwining English and various Chinese dialects. This album recasts “world music” as music of our shared world, highlighting our shared humanity and the transformative power of song.”

Having always loved Washburn’s version of Banjo Pickin’ Girl, I couldn’t resist the repurposed live take of Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girl.

A rendition of the beautiful Bright Morning Stars, with vocals by Washburn and Kai Welch, will end this Soundtrack. The Erhu solo is by local Lanzhou, China artist Fang Ningping. “This performance was dedicated to over 20 children who died in a school van accident near Lanzhou five days before the 2011 concert. The van accident had unleashed a wave of public fury around the dangerous conditions for underprivileged school children in China.”

Abigail Washburn’s “efforts to share U.S. music in China, and Chinese music in the U.S., exist within a hope that cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound rooted in tradition will lead the way to a richer existence.” It is a hope we can all share.

More to come…


Image of Abigail Washburn courtesy of Abigail Washburn.


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