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Alison Brown, Her Mind ‘On Banjo’, Plays Roots On The Rivers

The famous origin story of Alison Brown’s career is that after getting a Harvard degree and an MBA, she quit her investment banking job at Smith Barney to play the banjo. And that is a good story with a paradox that most anyone could understand. But dig into the music a little, and there’s another one. She grew up on bluegrass and went to work for a big deal bluegrass band. But when she made her own music on her bluegrass instrument, what came out was…jazz.

It wasn’t by design, she says in Episode 246 of The String. It was what happened when she followed her muse. “I found that as I started to write my own tunes, they came out every which way besides bluegrass,” she told me in the studio of Compass Records, the company she started with her husband more than 25 years ago. “It's still the hardest thing for me to write a bluegrass tune that doesn't seem like it's riffing off something that's already been done. I'll write these melodies, and once I set them to a groove, they're not really bluegrass anymore. In a way it's kind of a process of self discovery - and maybe a little bit of discovery on the banjo and its capabilities at the same time.”

That’s for sure. Today it’s normal and expected to see the banjo in any number of settings and combinations, when Brown released her solo debut Simple Pleasuresin 1990, her light and lyrical touch and her band’s easy-going Latin fusion sounded like nothing else. Béla Fleck was out there sounding edgy and angular with his new band The Flecktones, but Brown did the seemingly impossible and made banjo led instrumental music sound limpid and graceful.

A dozen albums later comes her latest, On Banjo, and she agrees that her trajectory has been evolutionary not revolutionary. She’s been listening closely to her first album lately because she’s in the process of remixing and remastering it for a fresh release. “It's so interesting to go back and listen and see that a lot of the footprint that I've been carving out over the last 30 years or so, was kind of set on that record,” she says, “I think you're right, I have kind of been mining a similar vein over these years trying to refine that sound.”

The first single from On Banjo leaned to the traditional side, pairing Alison with Steve Martin on a tune they co-composed called “Foggy Morning Breaking,” an intentional bluegrass referential tongue-twister. The piece flows like a meadow brook with Martin playing clawhammer style in the lower registers and Brown sparkling above playing the three-finger rolling approach innovated by Earl Scruggs. It’s one of several diverse duets here, including the brisk “Sweet Sixteenths” with mandolinist Sierra Hull, seemingly inspired by baroque chamber music, and the Brazilian influenced “Choro ‘Nuff” with New York jazz clarinet standout Anat Cohen.

We start our conversation with the piece “Tall Hog At The Trough” because this duo with fiddler Stuart Duncan offered a window into Brown’s teenage years developing as a player on the bluegrass circuit in California when she and Duncan were friends and picking partners. This old-time sounding instrumental gives On Banjo some earth tones to compliment the airy quality of tunes like “Wind The Clock” and the bossa nova “BanJobim.”

We also talk a bit about the legacy of Compass Records, because in its quarter century of releasing bluegrass, Celtic, folk and jazz, the Nashville label has become a hugely important force in indie music. She’s proud of the label’s longevity and rich catalog, while she allows that the environment has grown more challenging over time, sometimes to the disadvantage of being an artist. “When we started Compass, there were 10,000 releases a year coming out, and everyone was saying that's too many records. And now it's 100,000 tracks or thereabouts a day. So it's a very challenging business to be in, figuring out how to play roots music forward is more than a full time pursuit. So it does sometimes impede on the creative process.”

On the Monday that this episode premiered, Alison Brown played the very banjo that Earl Scruggs carried with him through more than a half century of history-making. The Gibson RB-Granada Mastertone, serial #9584-3, was formally donated by the Scruggs estate to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at a ceremony. And it was a nice reminder that not only did Earl want his disciples to play the banjo any way that felt right to them, Alison Brown knows and reveres the banjo’s heritage.

Brown performs with her band at WMOT’s Roots On The Rivers at 3:00 pm on Saturday, June 3.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>