An Interview with The Sparrow Quartet's Abigail Washburn
America: Love it or leave it. In an age when questioning the moral standing of our leaders is considered akin to treason, that’s a popular refrain among the flag-waving set. But for an artist and former expatriate like Abigail Washburn, leaving your country can, paradoxically, teach you how to love it.
Consumed by a passion for Chinese culture and disillusioned with her native U.S., Washburn spent months at a time living and studying in China over a period of several years, during and after college. (One school she attended was Middlebury.) She ended up realizing that what she lacked wasn’t a desire to fit into her own culture. It was a means to do so. Back in the States, she discovered the banjo, the instrument that would reconnect her with her American roots and take her around the world and, fittingly, back to China.
Washburn, 29, first honed her musical chops with Vermont old-time outfit The Cleary Brothers . She has since been a fixture in Americana circles, first as a member of noted bluegrass outfit Uncle Earl and later as a solo artist. But her latest venture, The Sparrow Quartet, represents her most fully realized artistic vision to date. It also embodies her seemingly disparate Chinese and American passions.
The group is an all-star ensemble, featuring banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, ace fiddler Casey Driessen and experimental cellist-songwriter Ben Sollee. Washburn composes and sings in both English and Mandarin. And she takes cues from other Western composers, such as Bartók and Puccini, who have been similarly inspired by Chinese music. With dramatic orchestral flair and intimate roots sensibilities, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet transcend the confines of culture to create art that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
The group has now toured the world, including a stop at the Beijing Olympics. And they were the first U.S. artists to perform in Chinese-occupied Tibet. Their upcoming Flynn show is something of a homecoming for Washburn. Before starting her musical career, she spent three years as a lobbyist in Montpelier, frequently making the trek north to the Burlington venue as a patron. As Washburn told Seven Days in a recent phone interview, she never imagined she’d be performing on its stage.
SEVEN DAYS: Where did you learn to play claw-hammer banjo? Did you grow up in a musical family?
ABIGAIL WASHBURN: Not particularly musical. I was never really the musician, though I sang in choirs. My parents played, like, Air Supply every once in a while on the record player. But that was about it. John Denver. That was pretty big around the house.
But claw hammer came from hanging out with a bunch of guys in college who played bluegrass. And at the time I was dating Beau Stapleton — he and I lived in Vermont for a while. He played in Smokin’ Grass and The Cleary Brothers Band. So he was in a bluegrass band and played mandolin, and I would be the girl who, like, sold merch at their shows. I liked bluegrass, but I wasn’t crazy about it, you know?
At the same time that was all happening in my world, I was getting really obsessed with Chinese culture. . . Basically, through doing all this Chinese stuff and living in China . . . I started wondering what there was in American culture that I could get as excited about or take some pride in.
And it wasn’t until I heard an LP of Doc Watson playing “Shady Grove” that I realized what old-time music was and realized that it was something I wanted to be a part of. So I bought a banjo and started learning just by strumming, sitting alone in my house in Montpelier. And then, slowly over time, when The Cleary Brothers moved to town, I started hanging out with them. At one point, they didn’t have the banjo player that they usually played with, who was a friend of mine from college. He couldn’t do an Alaska tour. So they asked me if I wanted to come along and play some banjo. I had never played in a band and really wasn’t much good. But I said yes. So that was my first music tour.
SD: You lived in Montpelier for a little over three years?
AW: I worked for contract lobbyists who did lobbying for all different kinds of issues. The ones that were hot topics, for sure — they worked for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America, trying to stop price caps on drugs sold in Vermont . . . Because I’m liberal-hearted and progressive in my own political standing, they would try to get me to sum up arguments from the liberal point of view . . . about the clients we were working with, which were usually conservative or Republican interests. Trying to figure out how to express them in ways that they could be heard and understood by the other side, by the liberals.
SD: Could you speak about melding such seemingly disparate influences?
AW: For me, it’s really just about who I am . . . When I started enjoying the banjo as a part of my life, I really started thinking about how I could play Chinese songs I knew on the banjo. Or could I play some of the melodies I’d heard while I was in China? . . . So that’s what I did...
Some people learn a tradition and want to perfect their performance of it. I’m more of a person who fell into tradition as a result of wanting to love my country. I love my country and I love China, and they’re both a part of who I am. So for me the two were never disparate or separate.
SD: In Chinese, various inflections or tones can drastically change the meaning of words or phrases. Does that present a challenge when you are translating American songs?AW: You don’t have to focus so much on tones when you’re singing Chinese. The way Chinese is built, at least phonetically, the way it comes out of your mouth is that almost all words begin with a consonant and end with a vowel sound. It’s all open at the end. So, in a way it’s like the pluck of a banjo string. You have the immediate pluck that is almost like a consonant, and then the ring, which is like an open vowel but doesn’t stay open very long. It closes. It almost mirrors the way Chinese language is spoken. I find it extremely satisfying to sing Chinese with the banjo. It’s easier than English.
English is such a dogmatic language. It takes a lot of explanation to describe something. Whereas in Chinese, ambiguousness is actually part of the beauty of the language.
SD: So does the ambiguity of the language make it easier to write songs in Chinese?
AW: I think Chinese is just meant for music. In order to be understood, I do have to connect it to their tradition and make it sound like their poetry. At least for now . . . I feel strongly about communicating, and part of communicating is being understood.
SD: You’ve said that The Sparrow Quartet is an opportunity to “intentionally create art that is more than what I ever thought I was capable of.” Could you expand on that?
AW: I would say that’s kind of my whole career. I really thought I was going to be studying law in Beijing, and then suddenly I’m in Nashville cutting demos and being courted by record labels. A girl who just learned how to play the banjo, and these Chinese songs . . . What? How’d that happen?
So everything I’ve done has been beyond what I thought I could do. Standing up in front of a group of people and playing music. But it specifically does describe what happened with The Sparrow Quartet. I could not have made this music without collaborating with Béla and Casey and Ben.
Basically, it opened me up in [such] a way that I could have ideas that I didn’t know how to execute, and that was OK. I could come to the group with a concept — specifically, “Great Big Wall in China” — and say, “You’ve been listening to Béla Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, and I’ve been listening to Puccini . . . and, man, I think we should incorporate some Western composers that have had major pieces based on their perception of China.”
SD: Is it intimidating to play with musicians of that caliber?
AW: There was a level of comfort there and a level of understanding my place within the group. But, yeah, it is intimidating . . . Everyone is very strong musically, but also very strong in personality and character. And there’s a bit of competition when you bring improvisation to the stage, which isn’t a part of old-time music . . . But with these guys, there is a push. There is a burn, which is really exciting. m