Abigail Washburn on Earl Scruggs and Getting Into an Old-Time Trance in China

Categories: Interviews
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It's safe to say that of all the ambassadors for old-time music -- from Bill Monroe to Pete Seeger to Ralph Stanley -- Abigail Washburn has had, through her passion for and knowledge of China, the most remarkable of international impacts. At one time, the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist had planned to make a home in Beijing, not as a musician, but as a lawyer. But as much as she loved Chinese culture, she seemed to love the banjo even more.

Over the course of an eight-year career she has recorded with Uncle Earl and the Sparrow Quartet (which features her husband Béla Fleck) and made solo albums, including last year's City of Refuge, a Tucker Martine-produced fusion of indie rock and old-time music that manages to capture what's most expressive and electrifying about both forms. And she's returned again and again to China, exploring new ways to remake American folk music, challenging herself and finding new audiences for the old sounds.

Washburn's last appearance in St. Louis was with a full band, opening for the Head and the Heart at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room in 2011. This time, on Thursday evening, she'll be performing as a duo with City of Refuge-collaborator Kai Welch at the Sheldon Ballroom (3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900).

Roy Kasten: I wanted to ask you about Earl Scruggs, who passed away recently. Do you remember the first time you encountered his music?

Abigail Washburn: I would say it was in college. I was hanging out with a bunch of people who were discovering bluegrass. Of course, you hear Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. At first I thought it was a bit jarring and strange, somehow representative of a South I didn't know or relate to because I never lived there. But over the years now it's become my music, my home. I live in Nashville, just around the corner from where Earl lived. I got to spend a number of days on his couch hanging out, singing songs, playing banjo tunes. He became a friend to me, for sure, in those last few years.

He was the most influential banjo player in the history of the instrument, but your style is totally different. You play in the pre-Scruggs clawhammer style.

I was inspired to learn banjo by Doc Watson, a contemporary of Earl's. They were coming up at the same time, emerging out of these places like Sugar Hill and Shelby, North Carolina. I was drawn to the old-time sound, whereas a lot of people were drawn to the Flatt and Scruggs sound.

Can you put your finger on what drew you in?

One thing, to provide some context: I was a Chinese major in college. I was obsessed with China. I thought I'd spend the rest of my life there. I was studying for the law exams to go to Beijing Law School. I passed them and was ready to go. After seven years of being a total Sinophile, I heard Doc Watson's "Shady Grove" on an LP at a party. I thought it was totally beautiful. It was reaching out and meeting this subconscious desire to find something really special about America that I could share with my Chinese friends. I was struggling to find that, rather than some big concepts like democracy or human rights, that you're never going to find are simpatico with Chinese people. The sound was magnetizing. I went out and bought a banjo and started learning the old-time music.

Then there's the further exploration. I think old-time music appealed to me because it embraces a more feminine quality. What I mean by that is that it's an all-inclusive craft, a folk craft, a web of people creating a vibe and a trance together. Bluegrass incorporates more ideas of jazz, of showmanship. Here's this chord structure and this number of bars, and I'm going to show you what I can do. Today there's still a gender thing. Most women I know aren't interested in showing off, but in relating, creating community, a sense of connection. I definitely fell into the old-time trance.

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