My fellow Americans, you just might have missed it: banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn has become a roots/world music rock star on the British music scene. With added persuasion from her outstanding touring band, her latest album, City of Refuge, released in January of 2011, was a top-ten critics pick of the year in fROOTS and Songlines, Britain’s leading roots/world music magazines. In May of 2011, Washburn graced the cover of fROOTS and last week she was one of four finalists in Songlines’ artist of the year award.
Why the Anglo-American disconnect? Do Brits and other Europeans, given their location and enduring cultural connections with their former colonies, embrace a broader palette of multicultural musical influences? Abigail Washburn’s current work certainly fits that eclectic bill. It’s an uncommon hybrid of indie pop, Chinese and other East Asian influences (Washburn has lived in China and speaks Mandarin), and of course, American roots music.
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When I spoke with Washburn’s symbiotic musical collaborator Kai Welch after an October 2010 concert by the band at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, he agreed that the group's music would have been impossible two generations ago. How the world has contracted! Back then, (my own salad years in the late 1960s), America’s idea of world music (the term, of course, hadn’t been coined) entailed Latin Jazz, jazz meets bossa nova, Olatunji, Makeba and Masakela, and, of course, George Harrison sitar riffs.
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Through his songwriting and indie sensibilities, Welch—a gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist--has nudged Washburn toward greater emotional resonance. (Her previous cd, the Sparrow Quartet, with a violin, cello, and two banjos, was no less multicultural, but many considered it too cerebral.)
Like Sparrow, Refuge offers beautifully nuanced arrangements and ensemble playing, but it’s far more grounded, more emotionally immediate. And when you hear the group live (as in the clip below), you’ll appreciate its improvisational prowess as well. That clip is from a video accompaniment to Bob Boilin’s show on NPR. Prepare for musicianship that is disciplined yet adventurous in support of genre-transcending music. So forgive me for the earlier label of world music rock star!