The blue, blue grass of Beijing

Abigail Washburn

“To run with the gods, you’ve got to run harder.” So goes a line in the title song from clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn’s new album City of Refuge, which she’ll be touting at the Bearsville Theater this Saturday, November 5. The song isn’t autobiographical, but the lyric must come from something that Washburn has learned well in the scant six or seven years since her career took off in the all-female stringband Uncle Earl. She has already racked up an impressive list of collaborators, among them one of the founders of the newgrass/new acoustic genre, Béla Fleck.

If you visit Washburn’s gorgeous website at www.abigailwashburn.com or read her press releases, you won’t find any reference to Fleck as anything but a collaborator (although you will find out that Washburn is fluent in Mandarin and came this close to attending law school in China). Fleck’s production of Washburn’s first solo album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, certainly must have helped her career. But although the 2009 marriage of the two genre-bending banjoists occasioned considerable jubilation in the bluegrass world – not to mention speculation about what sort of wunderkind offspring such a genetic mixture might eventually produce – you won’t find Washburn trying to milk that famous connection the way she could probably get away with. She’s just running harder these days, and the quality and breadth of her output shows it.

It gets tougher all the time to pin a category on the kind of music that Washburn makes. The lately overused “Americana” label doesn’t quite encompass it. There’s no more lonesome sound in all of old-timey bluegrass than clawhammer-style banjo-picking, and Washburn’s traditional roots are always showing no matter what else she does with her instrument, her songwriting and arranging. But all sorts of other influences from jazz, world music and even synth-pop keep creeping into what she does. Sometimes they downright take over.

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She often sings in Mandarin or incorporates Chinese folk tunes into her playing, and is perhaps best-known for her tours of China: in 2008 with the Sparrow Quartet, which included Fleck on three-string banjo, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen; and in 2009 with Chinese-American deejay/producer Dave Liang of the Shanghai Restoration Project, to record ethnic songs sung by Chinese schoolchildren displaced by the Sichuan earthquake. The resulting benefit LP, Afterquake, uses extensive sampling and processing to yield a surprising electronica/rap mix in which the banjo takes a back seat.

Her latest effort, City of Refuge, enlists an eclectic lineup that is completely new to Washburn, except for former Uncle Earl bandmate Rayna Gellert on banjo. Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Tift Merritt, Mudhoney) is the producer. Also joining in are the Turtle Island Quartet’s Jeremy Kittell, on violin and viola; My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel on pedal steel and electric guitars; Decemberists’ Chris Funk on dulcimer and guitars; jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; percussionist Kenny Malone; Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig on vocals; Wu Fei on guzheng; and throat-singing from the Mongolian stringband Hanggai. The relatively unknown singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch of Tommy and the Whale is Washburn’s co-writer and singing partner on the album.

“I knew I wanted to go outside of the folk community that I was used to,” says Washburn of her new cronies. “This new project…feels like a really natural progression of working with people that reach into other genres and other spaces musically.” She credits Martine and Welch with pushing her signature sound into a whole new realm. “In so many instances [Welch] really would have an initial instinct that was extremely beautiful and applicable to the songs. He would think of chord structures that were different than things I would usually think of.”

So these days Washburn is running with the gods, demigods and probable gods-to-be: good company for someone who has already played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, MerleFest, Bonnaroo Music Festival, Vancouver Folk Festival, 2008 Beijing Olympics, Joe Boyd’s 2009 all-star Incredible String Band tribute concert in London, Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, sung Stephen Foster songs with the Nashville Symphony during the 2009 Americana Music Festival, worked with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and opened frequently for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The new album is wonderful; you can listen to some cuts at www.myspace.com/abigailwashburn to get a sense of what you’ll be hearing at the Bearsville (although her lineup for the evening is listed simply as “special guests”). Local folkie faves Mike (Merenda) & Ruthy (Ungar) are the opening act.

Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m., with all tickets general admission at $15: a bargain price for an evening of quality acoustic music that truly blurs the already-indefinable boundaries of bluegrass. For reservations and information call (845) 679-4406 or visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.

 

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