Posts Tagged ‘Abigail Washburn’

MathomIn keeping with a Tolkien “tradition” that I’ve loved since I first read about it years ago, where Hobbits give small presents (or “mathoms”) on their birthday rather than receive them, I’ve curated a short playlist of the best songs to come my way over the last few months. It ranges from older hard rock, to newer hard rock, to acoustic, to un-categorizable. Here’s some info about what and who are included.

American WrestlersKelly – American Wrestlers

I don’t know anything about these guys – where they’re from, how long they’ve been around, nothing. All I do know is that the first time I heard this song I really liked the groove of it. (I also thought they were singing, “Kill it…” instead of “Kelly”)

Stoic Resemblance – The Helio SequenceHelio Sequence

I’ve heard and liked stuff from this band in the past but have never given them a deep dive, album wise. Still haven’t, but this tune makes me want to. Will report back once that’s accomplished.

RocksCombination – Aerosmith

I rarely go this far back when making compilations like this, but having just discovered that the album Rocks was finally available on iTunes (and I’ve been checking over the years…) I had to get it. I always remembered that this was my favorite collection of theirs, but I’d forgotten how strong these riffs are. “Combination” is the best, most visceral one of the lot, though it’s hard to rank them – they’re all killer. This was, to me, right in the middle of the band’s most fertile period – Toys in the Attic and Draw the Line were put out around the same time, and though hugely impacted by the band’s increasingly inhuman intake of all sorts of drugs, all three albums remain their strongest true rock and roll for me.

Methodrone – The Black CadillacsBlack Cadillacs

Just found these guys – total accident thanks to social media. On first sight, and even first listen, they may be easily dismissed as simply a good time bar band, bluesy and light. Far from it. Their song structures, lyrics, and busy rhythm guitars make what should be old hat sound like new again. Highly recommended.

musee mechaniqueThe Lighthouse and the Hourglass – Musee Mecanique

I found Musee Mecanique a year or so ago and love all of their long instrumental pieces. This is one of the rare tunes with lyrics, and it’s a strong one. Check out their Daytrotter session here.

Witness – Mewmew

Mew is one of those deceptively deep bands who sound, at first, like a hundred bands you’ve heard before – light piano or acoustic guitar intros reminiscent of Coldplay, Fallout Boy and the like. I find them a little more substantive than that, and it was hard to pick just one of their tunes. This won by a narrow margin.

BushBreathe – Bush

Almost all of my compilations include at least one good cover. This one was a big surprise from Bush’s recent Daytrotter session – didn’t even know it was included until I heard it on random in the car. Pink Floyd was a colossal influence on my musical growth, consciousness expansion, and – to be honest – my delinquency. Very interesting to note how differently these lyrics (and almost all of their others) hit me at 51 than they did when in my teens and twenties…

Bath Salt – River Whylessriver whyless

Interesting sound from this band, who I’m planning on seeing in July. To these ears, there’s a definite Chinese influence to the fiddle pieces; would love to find out if they’ve ever heard or played with Abigail Washburn, who also shows those influences.

tree machinesF**king Off Today – Tree Machines

Deceptively loud and sloppy, I was captured by this band’s entire Daytrotter session, too. (Pardon the profanity, but I figured we’re all old enough to take it, and if the kids are in the car when you’re cranking this one – and it needs to be cranked – you can always skip to the next one. It’s a little tamer.)

Full Circle – Xavier RuddXavier Rudd

Nice and calm after all the previous noise, this one is in keeping with the rest of Rudd’s canon – mellow and deep, inextricably sad and uplifting at the same time. (Bonus: when’s the last time you heard a didgeridoo on a song like this? Or anywhere?)

young buffaloSykia – Young Buffalo

I’ve been familiar with this outfit for a few years now. Good to see that their progression continues – familiar enough to the older stuff, new enough to sound fresh.

Cumin – The AcornMerlin by Richter

Another nice acoustic piece, this time with an almost Afro-centric beat that offsets it nicely. From a great collection called Oh! Canada 25 from The Line of Best Fit.

leisure societyWhen It Breaks – The Leisure Society

This felt like a nice bookend to the beginning section, and a softer way to wrap up.

I used to make these collections every few months – the above represents only new stuff from the last 60 days or so – but it’s been awhile now. Depending on how these are received, maybe I’ll get back to a more regular schedule. Let me know what you think, and thanks for listening/reading!


Mumford & Sons (with Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, and others) Telluride 2011

A few months ago I came across this rather snarky statement on one of the music sites I haunt pretty regularly:

“I was told recently by someone at Brighton’s The Great Escape Festival – albeit at 4am in the morning and after the consumption of a not inconsiderable amount of alcohol – that however good the new Fleet Foxes album was, he just couldn’t listen to it, because he innately blamed the band for opening the gates to the phenomenon that is now Mumford and Sons. However vodka-blurred and unreasonable this statement may have been, it’s fairly representative of how a lot of people now feel about the insurgence of folk which has found it’s way into the mainstream in the last few years, Fleet Foxes included.”

Granted – (and alcoholic reference notwithstanding) it’s totally anecdotal and probably not 100% representative of everyone writing about music, and certainly not everyone listening to it, but it got me thinking.

Why do we, as music fans, often turn on bands and artists that only weeks (sometimes days) before we were praising to the high heavens? Or is it only critics and bloggers who do this? I don’t think it’s limited to them.

This question and the statement that prompted it reminded me of how many of my college friends approached music back then. Most of the crowd I hung out with worked at the college radio station – mainly because we got plugged into the newest sounds before anyone else could.

Which was definitely part of the appeal. My closest friends and I were still somewhat closed-minded and relatively old school when it came to our tunes: if it wasn’t hard rock (VERY hard rock, usually,) it sucked. That’s not to say all hard rock and metal of the time was worth discovering- the vast majority was not (then or now.) But the rock and roll we truly loved had thought-provoking lyrics and loud guitars. (The two were and are not always mutually exclusive.)

Our cohorts at the station, though, swung the other way entirely: if it was NEW, it ruled. The fewer people who knew about it, the cooler it was.

Even if it sucked. And a lot of it just plain sucked.

Which brings me to my point. If the new bands in question had the extremely poor taste to get even a little bit popular, you should have heard the vitriolic backlash. “Sellouts!” “Their earlier stuff was SO much better. . .” and much worse. In many/most cases, these bands started out shitty and got shittier, but on some rare occasions they learned from early mistakes and actually got better, which often resulted in more record sales, more concerts, more fans and more popularity – and which meant they were instantly uncool to the Newbie-doo set.

I eventually broadened my definition of what was listenable and what wasn’t, but was still pretty selective. While at the station – even though relegated to playing Zappa’s “Rubber Shirt” at 2 AM on a Thursday because the daylight hours were reserved for the likes of The English Beat and Joy Division – I got turned onto some bands that got me well into adulthood. We saw REM at Six Flags and in Athens. (Then again, we also saw the B-52’s, which you can have. I’ll keep my quirky R&R on the Zappa end of the spectrum, thank you.) We saw the Fixx dozens of times, opening for everyone, it seemed. Got to see the Police twice on the Synchronicity tour, their last, in both Orlando and Atlanta. World Party, Elvis Costello, and many others got their start in that era, and we were able to see most of them. They lasted well beyond those times for good reason, and we loved them.

Nearly all of the bands so eagerly embraced by the Newbie-doos were gone after, at most, two albums – and deservedly so. Many that put out 8 or 10 discs should have followed them much sooner, but who was I to dictate?

Take the Hootie & the Blowfish phenomena. This is a band who sold more records at the time (and in a very short window) than nearly everyone except the Beatles. Everyone was buying their stuff, and the first 100 or so times you heard it, it wasn’t awful. Catchy, hooky, harmless Pop music.

But the backlash that erupted when some hitherto unknown and unexpressed critical mass was reached was incredible. The same millions of former fans who’d spent their money on the albums and the shows were dismissing them like they were something stepped-in instead of listened-to. To this day I know people who will throw down some serious negativity on them if ever they’re brought up. It was baffling at the time.

Surprisingly, though, that strong of a turning away by a performer’s fan base doesn’t happen all that often. Witness Madonna, and her younger alter-ego “The Gaga.” Why couldn’t their fans pull a Hootie on ’em and make them go away, too? Madonna is enshrined in the pop music pantheon almost to the same degree as her namesake, when all she really did was dress trashily and shock people with all the quasi-religious imagery in her videos. (Thanks, MTV. Can’t unring that bell.) Gaga is headed for the same pedestal, if she’s not there already.

But I digress, and there are no doubt legions of people who feel as strongly about MaGaga’s contributions to the canon as I do about M&S’s. (But I don’t consider them as providing the same type of experience.)

So here it is some 35+ years later and that “I found them first/don’t get too popular…” attitude still seems to be around. I’m often guilty of it myself.

Of course it’s even easier now to find the hyper-obscure/crudely named/one song/YouTube wonder and claim the find as your own. If you can actually manage to see the band then the deal is sealed: you’re a die hard fan and will defend them to the death (or at least to the pain…) Or you will until the next newest thing comes along. Or until your best friend posts a new link on FB.

So, again, the one quote I pulled with a derogatory reference to M&S is extremely anecdotal. It still strikes me as being spookily similar to the Hootie outbursts. In the last two years or so Marcus Mumford and the boys have been experiencing similar levels of ever-increasing exposure and popularity, (how fun would that train tour earlier this year have been?) and have no doubt laid the groundwork for a slew of folk/rock followers. Many of those bands sound a lot like M&S, many only remind you of them (after all, they’re all playing various versions of New Americana, so similarities are largely unavoidable.) There may come a time when I can’t stand listening to them or their ilk because they’re all over the place, but I really don’t see that happening. The Americana, Newgrass, Folkie, (electric or acoustic,) whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement has revitalized the Indie music scene for me, and dredges up memories from my earliest childhood, listening to old-school Bluegrass before I knew there was such a thing as “cool” or “uncool” bands or performers. I liked it because it was fun to play and fun to listen to. It was hard not to smile when you were listening to that type of music, or better yet playing it, especially when you were doing it with good friends and family.

Still is.

So thanks, Mumford & Sons, and Fleet Foxes, and the Greencards, and Abigail Washburn, and Seryn, and The Head and the Heart, and Laura Marling, and Horse Feathers, and Mt. Desolation, and Frightened Rabbit, and Band of Horses, and all the myriad bands out there playing some strange, personal version of roots music that touches that same place in all of us. (There’s a completely separate story in how M&S and their UK counterparts are responsible in large part for the so-called Americana Revival. . . Roots is Roots, I suppose, no matter where you’re from.)

And maybe the snarky cynics out there will save their vitriol for something or someone else. But they probably won’t. It’s their self-perceived job, just like those knobs at the college radio station saw it to be theirs, to find the next and newest thing – always what’s next. Even if it sucks.

Maybe it’s always been that way with music, and even with literature and other forms of art and entertainment. Maybe that’s how it will always will be. If so, I’ll just keep finding new sources for the stuff I like – old, new, quirky, serious, fluffy, weighty, smart, or none of the above. I don’t know what I’m going to like 10 years from now, but I can be pretty sure that it will include lots of what I’m experiencing now, and some of what I’ve been experiencing all along. And yes, probably some new stuff, too.

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:, but I prefer the slower, softer version of “Sala” released later:

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: