Banjo star Abigail Washburn mixes up jazz, American folk, and traditional Chinese music with her band the Sparrow Quartet (which also features her husband, Bela Fleck). She also records as a solo artist, and has a brand-new album, City of Refuge, due out on Jan. 11. She’s managed by AC Entertainment, so she turns up in Knoxville frequently. Here’s what she’s been listening to recently.
Shanghai Lounge Divas (EMI, 2004)
It’s hard to express the total radness of the sounds of jazz and blues hitting Shanghai clubs and opium dens in the 1930s. You have to listen. Listen to the chaotic groove of the ragtime piano’s swing hanging on the floating pluck of traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa and guzheng, and the aching, high-pitched clarity of the gourd flutes playing Ellington-style horn lines, and the magnetic voices of the Shanghai divas holding it all together. My favorite of the voices is the one known as “The Golden Voice,” Zhou Xuan. Abandoned at birth, she endured a life of fleeting triumphs and enduring tragedies, but her voice remains a beacon of sanity and beauty in modern China as a reminder of the elegance and earthiness of Old China. When I’m touring in China, I’ll start singing one of her songs and all the Chinese folks will know it and sing along and say, “Music now just isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Blind Willie Johnson
Sweeter as the Years Go By (Yazoo, 1991)
I’ve got a compilation of Blind Willie’s that I got at Indy CD & Vinyl in Broad Ripple, Ind., while on tour. I can’t stop listening to it—“John the Revelator,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Let Your Light Shine on Me,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time.” You ever heard “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”? I love me some Skip James and Robert Johnson, too, in the same vein, but nothing’s stuck quite like Blind Willie’s lonesome hum.
Send It Down (Self-released, 2011)
Mr. Welch appeared in my world right at the moment I was trying to figure out what to do next. He was on stage playing every instrument in an indie-rock band, singing back-up, leading horn sections at a Tommy and the Whale show at the Basement in Nashville. I knew I had to figure out how to make music with him. A few phone messages and e-mails later, we ended up playing a little show at a jeans shop in Nashville, and we’ve never stopped making music. We made my new album City of Refuge together with producer Tucker Martine and we’re hitting the road to tour the music from the album. Despite being one of the most talented musicians I ever met, he’s never made his own album. But that’s about to change. He’s getting ready to release his debut solo record, Send It Down. I’ve gotten to be a part of the making of the record and I can’t get the songs out of my head (in a good way!). Keep your eye out for it!