Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Sounds
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Abigail Washburn must be tired. Really tired.

Then again, I have a theory as to why she might not be as exhausted as all of her recent activities might lead one to believe.

I first heard about Abigail when she was blogging from China during the Olympics in 2008. Sounded pretty cool for an American banjo player to be tapped for that assignment, I thought. And didn’t think anything more about it, or her, for a while.

Until a good friend of mine with a similar penchant for new and unusual music told me about City of Refuge, Washburn’s latest full-length. The songs were captivating from first listen, varied and interesting enough that I started digging for more information on this Renaissance woman with such a myriad of interests and abilities.

Less than 10 years ago Washburn was studying at Colorado College, the first and only (at the time) Asian Studies major; she must have persuaded the faculty to offer one, which – after learning a bit more about this deceptively tiny woman – wouldn’t surprise me at all. The plan was, she says, that she’d go to China and study law. She’d spent significant amounts of time there on more than one trip, and felt like that’s where she might land.

Before leaving, though, she wanted to find something distinctly American to take with her, to remind her of these shores and of home.

So she picked up a banjo.

Having never played before she listened to some of the old masters, drawing particular inspiration from Doc Watson’s “Shady Grove” LP. (I know the guitar recordings of Doc and his son well, but never knew he played the banjo, too. First of several lessons Abigail had to teach me, it seemed.)

She taught herself how to hammer out some tunes – clawhammer them out, to be precise. She played with different groups of friends up and down the East Coast and before she knew it she had a record deal.

Abigail spent the next 5 years or so with Uncle Earl, an all-girl bluegrass outfit that recruited John Paul Jones to produce one of their albums. Again, that got my attention but for some reason didn’t hold it.

She recorded her first solo effort after that, which was produced by future-husband Bela Fleck. That collaboration led to the formation of Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, which included Fleck and which yielded an EP, a full-length, and extensive touring throughout North America.

After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed tens of thousands and changed the lives of many millions more, Abigail spent some time there with the volunteer relief effort. She visited villages across the affected areas and played for the locals. After these shows, she says, it was not unusual for children and adults alike to gather around and teach her their songs – trading meaningful sounds and words with each other in the midst of life-altering tragedy.

One of those children taught Abigail a song that the child’s mother – lost in the quake – used to sing to her. “Sala” would become the cornerstone of the benefit album Abigail recorded with David Liang and the Shanghai Restoration Project over the span of one week, released on the one year anniversary of the quake. (The album is called “Afterquake,” and can be purchased here:http://www.afterquakemusic.com, but I prefer the slower, softer version of “Sala” released later: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGuET34Ivj8.)

The influence of these and her many other Chinese experiences inform nearly all of Washburn’s creations – whether in the ambient sounds of schoolchildren that open her latest album, the many tunes she sings in Mandarin (only one on “City,” but others available all over the Interwebs,) or the enchantingly lilting way that even her so-called traditional songs recall the Orient. The fiddle turns, the vocal structures, the pacing – there’s something about this magical melding of East and West that results in sounds that are totally unique, yet strangely comforting in their familiarity.

This love of sharing and learning isn’t confined to Eastern audiences, though. In one of her recent tour videos with the band of like-minded and equally talented musicians she’s taken to calling “The Village,” they visit an after school program in Aspen. Seated in a circle, teaching these kids old-timey traditional and new, fun songs to sing with her band providing the simple accompaniment, Washburn seems completely in her element and at home. She teaches them all to square dance (admitting in an aside to the camera, “I’ve never taught anyone to square dance before. . .”) everyone hopping and spinning and laughing uncontrollably. I’m sure those kids still carry that day with them.

I was lucky enough to see Abigail and the Village –with her husband playing in her band for much of the show (bonus!) – a few weeks ago at the Variety Playhouse here in Atlanta. Opening for The Wood Brothers in front of a near sold out crowd, Abby appeared surprisingly nervous on the first few tunes; I had expected that she’d be a jaded pro by now, unfazed by the spotlight. That brief glimpse and minor revelation added somehow to the overall charm of the show, and of Abigail herself.

She quickly got comfortable, though – the warm reception to each song probably helped – and before long she was intro-ing one of the previously mentioned Mandarin songs from the new offering: Taiyang Chulai, which she said “was taught to me by Old Lady Wong, and which means, ‘the sun has come out and we are SO happy. . .’” She also explained that when singing in traditional Mandarin, hand gestures are mandatory – the song is incomplete without them – but she was able to reassure us: “I know – it’s awkward, but it’ll be over in a minute. . .”

Abigail, Bela and the rest of "The Village" playing Taiyang Chulai at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, 5/9/11

Like the rest of the show, the gestures and the song were perfectly appropriate and melded seamlessly with the rest of the Washburn canon.

An unplugged version of “Keys to the Kingdom” was another highlight – so good it simultaneously raised both chills and goosebumps.

The liner notes on City close with a sweet plea: “If you like the music, would you send Gramma June a thank you letter?” since she and other family members helped bankroll the project.

So I did.

Dear Gramma June,

“Thanks” seems like such a small word for the incredibly huge gift you’ve helped present to the world with the City of Refuge album. I know you must be very proud of Abigail and of how the album turned out. It moved me deeply, and I listen to it often.

Thank you very much!!

I didn’t really expect a response, and after 6 or 8 weeks had passed I’d nearly forgotten about it. Waiting on me at home one day, though, was a postcard decorated in an energetic hand, saying “Thank you! With Love – Abby’s Gramma June.”

After listening to this music and reading about this diminutive, powerful presence of a woman, her history and her works, I can only conclude that her family has helped to raise and present to the world a bright heart that shines like a searchlight wherever she goes, bathing the people and places she visits in positive energy and reminding them that there is sweetness and good in what can sometimes be a dark and dreary world.

So here’s my theory: spreading and sharing such light and goodness must not diminish one’s supply, like draining a battery or a gas tank, but feed it and make it grow in the giver, too. Maybe that’s why she’s not exhausted.

Thanks, Abby. Can’t believe I thanked Gramma June and not you, too! Also can’t wait to hear all of the music and learn all of the lessons sure to flow forth in the years to come.

LOAD UP: Chains, Bring Me My Queen, Last Train

Making of City of Refuge, from Abigail’s site: http://www.abigailwashburn.com/website/makingof/video-pictures/

  1. Neveah says:

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    • soundscryer says:

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