If American old-time music is about taking earlier, simpler ways of life and music-making as one’s model, Abigail Washburn has proven herself to be a bracing revelation to that tradition. She—a singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based clawhammer banjo player—is every bit as interested in the present and the future as she is in the past, and every bit as attuned to the global as she is to the local. She pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, and the results feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody’s ever heard before. To put it another way, she changes what seems possible.
It seemed just as certain that Washburn would study law in Beijing—she even had the plane ticket—as it seemed far-fetched that she’d be offered a record deal when she wasn’t looking for one. And yet, half a decade back she emerged without a law degree, but with a debut album, that album being Song of the Traveling Daughter. Alongside old-timey originals that felt impossibly lush and light on their feet were songs she wrote in Chinese—she’s fluent—and even an instrumental that wove together an old-time banjo tune and with a traditional Chinese folk song: “Backstep Cindy/Purple Bamboo.” It was a new way of hearing both.
In 2008, Washburn and three virtuosic comrades—cellist Ben Sollee, fiddler Casey Driessen and three-finger-style banjo player Bela Fleck—presented Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, a set of seemingly boundless compositions sprouted from seeds of American and Chinese folk. The album extended an imaginative musical bridge between East and West. The world had never seen a chamber ensemble, stringband or bluegrass group quite like the Sparrows.
City of Refuge—to be released by Rounder January 11, 2011 —is something completely different, even for her: a sublime marriage of old-time and indie-pop. “This new project,” she says, “incorporates what would’ve in the beginning of my career seemed like an unexpected move, but now feels like a really natural progression of working with people that reach into other genres and other spaces musically.”