From Bonnaroo to Beijing: Abigail Washburn, Béla Fleck & The Sparrow Quartet break the acoustic string-band mold 

IN JUST A FEW SHORT WEEKS, The Sparrow Quartet will release their second album. Led by multicultural tunesmith and banjoist Abigail Washburn, the scandalously talented group —featuring cellist Ben Sollee, Grammy-nominated fiddler Casey Driessen, and world famous banjo icon Béla Fleck— in not only considered to be on the vanguard of contemporary acoustic string music, but an innovative experiment in bridging numerous stylistic divides.

Washburn, who essentially fell into the music industry on a whim after drifting away from a promising future in international law, brings several unusual talents and perspectives to her original material — not the least of which is a fluency in Chinese and an abiding interest in the history, politics and culture of that country.

In fact, some of her songs are written and sung in Chinese, and incorporate distinctive elements of both Old-Time Americana and traditional Chinese folk music. It’s an approach that is certainly related to —but distinctly different from— Uncle Earl, the other acoustic combo she’s known for (their show was a highlight of last year’s SMF). It’s that unique pairing of Eastern and Western culture that led the quartet in late 2007 to become the first U.S.-based musicians to officially tour Tibet on a government-sponsored cultural mission.

Over the next several months, The Sparrow Quartet will play more than 100 live dates everywhere from North American events like Bonnaroo and MerleFest to the Summer Olympics in Beijing. To read my complete interview with Ms. Washburn, go to www.connectsavannah.com.

Bluegrass and Appalachian music has a small but rabid following in Asia. Why?

Abigail Washburn: Generally speaking, the Japanese bluegrass craze was in the late ‘80s and there remains a small cult following there now. There has been no such thing in China so far as I can find. In general, the Chinese are excited by cultural exchange events, whatever they may be: bluegrass, swing, country, jazz, blues, chamber music, musicals, opera, rock and roll, etc... They are extremely enthusiastic because of their curiosity about foreign cultures. This curiosity seems to be changing, and possibly lessening, as China opens, modernizes and absorbs the influence of outside cultures. Perhaps this will mean a new kind of possibility for cult excitement about music sub-cultures.

Why did you choose to immerse yourself in the Chinese culture and language?

Abigail Washburn: I started studying Chinese my freshman year of college. I became obsessed with the language and the culture and have continued to study for the past ten years, including many long stays in different Chinese cities. I hope to go back for the rest of my life. China gives me a perspective on my own native roots that I never would have found otherwise, and it continues to change me.

What compelled you to translate traditional U.S. mountain music into Chinese?

Abigail Washburn: China inspired my interest in American folk music. A few years into studying Chinese, I started learning the banjo and a small handful of old-time, blues and bluegrass songs. The natural progression was to start translating these songs. And then, eventually I started writing original songs in Chinese.

What is the most lasting or compelling thing you took away from your tour of Tibet, and how does that impact your take on the violence now engulfing that region?

Abigail Washburn: Nothing from that tour brings me peace about the current unrest or the undercurrent of oppression and sadness I felt while I was there. The Potala Palace was the most obvious sign of the times in Lhasa. The Palace is one of the greatest spiritual “houses” in modern times, and now it is simply a tourist attraction in the hands of the local Chinese government. There were some extremely inspiring and awe-inducing moments on the trip as well including a performance to 4,000 junior high school kids at Lhasa high school and approximately the same size crowd at Tibet University. We got to share our music and perform side by side with the students. There is nothing more meaningful than this kind of interaction.

click to enlarge Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet
  • Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet

Your group is scheduled to play during the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing. Some are calling for or hinting at a boycott of those games as a specific result of the fighting in Tibet. Is there a chance your group might opt out of that gig for such reasons?

Abigail Washburn: It is my personal philosophy and belief that engagement —rather than disengagement— is my surest way of having the greatest impact. My gift is for communication and communicating through seemingly strange, awkward and possibly difficult situations. My gift requires me to stay engaged. That being said, I believe in the power of activism and the possibility that organized activism can lead to great changes.

For folks who know of your work with Uncle Earl, what are (in your opinion) the most notable similarities between that group and the Sparrow Quartet, as well as the greatest differences?

Abigail Washburn: The greatest common ground is the fact that we find our inspiration and many of our musical tools in traditional American music, and that ultimately they are both some form of “string-band”. The greatest difference for me is that this Quartet is built around my music and heavily incorporates Chinese influences. Yet it relies heavily on the musical ideas and unique virtuosity of each member.

This project is packed with standout musicians, any of whom could front and in some cases have fronted their own projects. Yet, the band retains your name. What is the songwriting dynamic like in The Sparrow Quartet? Do you essentially call the shots, or is this a true group collaboration?

Abigail Washburn: The group originated as a result of Béla, Ben and Casey coming with me on two tours to China as, what essentially boiled down to a phenomenal support band for my music. Although I generally chose the songs —and in most cases wrote the largest portion of the songs— on most levels, The Sparrow Quartet is a collaboration. This latest record, to be released this May 20 by Nettwerk Records, spotlights the intense level of participation by every member. The foursome expected no less than each person’s highest musical contribution to each song including composition and arrangement ideas. Hopefully you can tell. We worked really hard!

Béla Fleck is known worldwide as not only a masterful banjo player, but as an omnivorous music lover who’s more than happy to ignore stylistic boundaries. What specifically does he bring to the Sparrow Quartet that other players (no matter how facile) could?

Abigail Washburn: Béla is a phenomenal musical force. He is relentless in his pursuit of unique, full expressions of the human experience and the need for progress in sound. The more unconventional, the better. He was in a sense the musical director of Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet. He produced, edited and saw the project to its completion. He made us realize that not only could we accomplish things we never thought we could, but that the greatest gifts of music come with venturing beyond the known options. Creativity and the pursuit of greater competence is the name of the game with Béla Fleck. He makes impossible things possible. Ben and Casey are also amazing collaborators, bringing their own unique ideas and virtuosity to the music. Some day it would be fun to recall how all of the songs were constructed in the studio. It would unearth a very collaborative experience.

How does the upcoming record noticeably differ stylistically (if at all) from your last?

Abigail Washburn: The last album was largely an expression of my first years of being a musician. It was a recording of what I could do at the time. Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet is my chance to think big and have the resources in my fellow musicians to execute these ideas. For example, the song “Great Big Wall in China” started as a simple Woody Guthrie-sounding folk song. But I had much bigger plans for it. I sat down with the guys and explained my desire to integrate themes from Puccini’s Turandot into the song as a matter of conceptual dedication to incorporating classic examples of artists from the West portraying the “exotic Chinese” in their music. “Great Big Wall in China” is very much a song about trying to understand the “otherness” of being in a foreign land, and how that “otherness” changes and perhaps lessens over time.

What are you most proud of as far as the new album goes?

Abigail Washburn: I am the most proud of the power of this collaboration, and of these particular people working together. This music would not sound the way it does without the full participation of the four members.

When a group such as yours has a reputation for being innovative and willing to experiment with taking traditional music into slightly unforeseen directions, do you wind up feeling pressure from fans, your label, or even yourselves to stay one step ahead of what folks might expect from you?

Abigail Washburn: I don’t really fell pressure from the rest of the world. There is a voice inside me that cuts myself much less slack than all those folks combined. I have big dreams and high ideals and a lot of energy at this point to try to live them.

Your groups have played such major festivals as Bonnaroo and MerleFest, which are quite different in scope and appeal to the Savannah Music Fest. As both a musician and a music fan, what’s your take on the Savannah Music Festival?

Abigail Washburn: When I think of the Savannah Music Festival, I think of class, charisma and generous appreciation. What I saw of Savannah last year when playing with Uncle Earl was love at first sight. It was my first time to Savannah and not only is the city itself beautiful and unique, but the festival is so smoothly run and chock full of real music appreciators. I can’t wait to play our new music there. It seems like the perfect setting for it.

Do you approach a gig at this event any differently than you would a more roots-rock or strictly Americana event?

Abigail Washburn: Each event requires consideration. That is the job of a performing artist — especially if they care about communicating with their audiences. All facets of the circumstance must be taken into account in order to best determine how to communicate what is important about the music or art.

What can folks at this year’s festival expect from your set? Will you be playing any material from the forthcoming LP, or might they find most or all of your set contained in your past records?

Abigail Washburn: The set will be almost entirely new music to be released on the forthcoming release. Some of the old stuff will be thrown in as well.

If the Sparrow Quartet were to fold for whatever reason, would you still be interested in continuing on in the music biz as your main vocation, or could you see yourself returning to your prior career path?

Abigail Washburn: I have often thought about this question throughout the past five years of my music career. I will be a musician for as long as I can tell. I have given myself to the arts and can see no turning back. Even if I returned to my previous career path, I would need a continuous artistic outlet. I have already weathered many difficult periods and feel that they have all been worth it for the honor of living the life of an artist.

Finally, you worked with John Paul Jones in Uncle Earl. Were you at all surprised when Led Zeppelin got back together? Have you gotten a chance to speak with him about the whole thing, and if so, was it strange to have your former producer (and avowed bluegrass aficionado) shift back into “rock star” mode?

Abigail Washburn: John Paul Jones is one of the finest men and most open musicians you will meet. He never stopped being a rock star, but his tremendous humility and child-like unending fascination with music is a constant reminder that he is so much more than a rock icon. He loves him some bluegrass and old-time music! He also loves producing artists of his choosing. He loves the freedom he has to pursue the things he feels passionate about and having been a supreme rock star made a lot of that freedom possible. It was surprising when he told us that Led Zeppelin was going to play a reunion show. I’m so glad I got to be there. It was amazing!

Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (featuring Béla Fleck, Casey Driessen & Ben Sollee)

Where: Trustees Theater

When: 8 pm, Sat., April 5

Cost: $45 - $15 at www.savannahmusicfestival.org or 525-5050

Info: www.abigailwashburn.com


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