Abigail Washburn bought her first banjo in 2000. Three years later, she had a record contract. These things don't happen in the real world. Those who have struggled with the instrument for decades may feel they have reason to hate her, but only until witnessing a performance. Washburn is one of the most fascinating banjo performers in the world, and decidedly unhateable.
It's not always her virtuoso clawhammer picking that gets attention, but an assembly of her singing, songwriting, and backing band, which together transforms banjo music into something you don't expect.
"I'm a songwriter and a singer, and the banjo is my muse," she says.
Those who witnessed her unusual—unique, in her own experience—three-week residency at Relix Variety Theatre last fall had something to talk about for some weeks afterward. "Knoxville is one of those wonderful places," she says, recalling the ever-changing audience at the North Central Street nightclub. She's played WDVX's Blue Plate Special several times over the years, and known musicians and friends here. Performing at Bonnaroo a few years ago, she was hounding Ashley Capps for the name of a good manager—"because he knows everybody"—until he finally offered to do it himself. She was AC Entertainmen's first musical client.
No banjoist has a story like hers. Originally from Illinois, she didn't grow up with any sort of folk-music background. Just out of college, she began studying law in China.
"I hardly knew the banjo existed," she says. "China held up a mirror. This culture is so distinct. But what am I? People would ask me, ‘What about America do you love?' I didn't have a good answer." Finding a distinctly "American" culture eluded her.
Through a boyfriend in a bluegrass band, she started listening to cassettes of Doc Watson, then Gillian Welch and others. "I thought, ‘Who is this? What is this? This is beautiful.' It doesn't sound black, it doesn't sound white, but it sounds American.... Before I knew it, I was really into it."
And just like that, she decided to learn the banjo. She bought one, and began taking it with her back to China.
For three years, she split her time between China and Vermont, where she had a job as a lobbyist in Montpelier, and, when she found time, worked on the banjo. In 2003 she bought a little red truck and took a road trip to some parts of America she'd never seen before, including the South, and found a place for herself in bluegrass conventions. At one in Louisville, Ky., she hit it off with new friend Megan Gregory, an East Tennessean who plays fiddle.
"She knew a million songs, I knew about five," Washburn says. A representative of Sugar Hill Records happened to be walking by. When Washburn and Gregory went to Nashville to record, "I barely could play what we had to play for the demo," she says. But a career was born.
"I'm not coming back to go to law school," she told a friend in Beijing. "I just got offered a record deal."
Her friend responded, "You play music?"
She went back anyway, and played several Chinese cities.
Soon after, she joined the all-female old-time band Uncle Earl, and put out a solo album with the assistance of then-little-known cellist Ben Sollee. In 2007, she co-founded the Sparrow Quartet, which included Sollee and her eventual husband, banjo wizard Béla Fleck.
"We come from such different places with it, our stylings are extremely different," she says, so much so that they're considering a duo project.
China may be part of what separates her from all other American banjoists.
"I don't think I ever intended to innovate," she says. She at first immersed herself in cassette recordings of traditional folk tunes. "I'm inspired by things that are traditional, and want to fit into that world," she says. "But I don't, because I come from a different place."
One different place is a Beijing tea shop called the Three Flavors, where those who come to hear traditional Chinese music are ushered into an upper room. There she would be served unfiltered tea and traditional Chinese string music on instruments little known in the West, including that of the pipa, which is comparable to the banjo. She calls the music "impressionistic." "It's based on a landscape. The Chinese do not think they exist separately of the landscape."
Only a little of her music sounds obviously Eastern, but much of it is more meditative and, as she says, "impressionistic" than the usual banjo routine. On her new album, City of Refuge, a mixture of traditional-sounding tunes and sophisticated alt-pop, her banjo takes a backseat to other instruments. She's proud of the band she's bringing to the Bijou Theatre, which includes Kai Welch on keyboards, Jamie Dick on drums, John Estes on pedal steel and stand-up bass, and two fiddler/violinists: Rayna Gellert, formerly of Uncle Earl, and Jeremy Kittel, of the Turtle Island String Quartet.
It's not the U.N., where she once expected to work as an attorney, but she has no regrets. "This is about the heart," she says.