Abigail Washburn: Quick Hits

Abigail Washburn is a blonde, blue-eyed banjo player from the Midwest who is obsessed with China, speaks Mandarin and sings in Chinese when she feels like it. That is, when she’s not performing her very contemporary versions of traditional Appalachian-style folk songs, threatening in one to use her shotgun on a lover who has betrayed her. (She ends that song with a wicked smile.)

In this edition of “Quick Hits,” SOUND TRACKS reporter Arun Rath talks with Washburn about how she fell in love with China and how listening to Doc Watson made her fall for bluegrass music. And she performs three songs exclusively for “Quick Hits,” including “City of Refuge,” the title track from her new album.

Extended Curator's Note by Arun Rath

As if our debt to China weren’t big enough, it turns out we also owe the Asian giant for inspiring Abigail Washburn, a true American original, to become a musician. It’s a roundabout story.

Abigail Washburn is such a natural, you might think she jumped out of the crib with a banjo in her hand, singing a song. But as a child, she had a piano teacher quit on her because she just wouldn’t take to reading music. What that boneheaded teacher didn’t notice was Abby’s amazing ear, and talent for perfectly reproducing sounds. That gift finally became obvious through her talent for language, when she took to learning Chinese.

Over the course of multiple trips to China starting in college, Washburn became fluent in Mandarin and fell in love with the culture. She began pursuing a law degree in China, and was on her way to settling in the country. Realizing she didn’t know enough about her own culture, Washburn decided to go on a cultural tour of America, and fell in love with American roots music. She learned clawhammer banjo, started going to bluegrass festivals, and on what was going to be her farewell tour of America, got ‘discovered.’

“I called my friends in China—‘I got offered a record deal!’ And they said—‘um—you’re a musician?’” Before long she was recording albums as part of the all-female string band, Uncle Earl, and as a solo artist. Suddenly a serious, professional musician, she took up songwriting, penning her second song in Chinese. “I was so immersed in it at that point that when I was thinking creatively—which was a new to thing to me—writing wise, output-wise, sometimes I literally am inspired in Mandarin.”

Abigail is a restless artist, and her new album, “City of Refuge,” reflects a still growing web of influences and modalities that she’s crafting into her own, unique sound. As the song “Chains,” goes, “You gotta leave your home, rattle all your bones, and shake off your chains.”

Washburn still gets to China regularly, but usually as a touring musician. In 2009 she worked with Shanghai Restoration Project to produce Afterquake, a benefit album for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. And she’s getting ready to embark on a musical tour of the old Silk Road, sponsored by the State Department.

“The central mission of it all is inspired by my whole path here: a sense of connection through beauty and culture,” Abby says. “Because I really believe that the more mind real estate beauty and culture and connectedness can take up inside of us, the more likely we are to create a world based on that aesthetic, that longing for beauty. I really believe in the power of music.”

Visit Abigail Washburn’s website.

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