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Abigail Washburn

By Phil Freeman
Published March 13, 2007

Abigail Washburn is a woman who makes interesting choices. After spending a long stretch in China (becoming fluent in Mandarin along the way), she returned and picked up the banjo, translating bluegrass and folk numbers and composing some of her own tunes with Chinese lyrics. Her debut solo CD, Song Of The Traveling Daughter, was released in 2005, and contained songs in Chinese (“The Lost Lamb” and the title track) alongside covers of traditional numbers “Who’s Gonna Shoe” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The sound of the banjo (and Ben Sollee’s cello, by which she’s often accompanied both on record and in live performance) gives the music a mournful, backwoods feel, and the strange, hushed sound of her delicate voice, whether singing in Chinese or English, makes for an odd, yet fascinating combination.

Washburn’s latest release is the Sparrow Quartet EP; the other members of the group are Sollee, fiddler Casey Driessen and fellow banjo player Bela Fleck. The five-song disc contains a version of the gospel song “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” She’s determined to bridge gaps between Chinese and American culture, having toured the Far East a few times, including a recent government-sponsored trip to Tibet. While on the road, she always tries to make time to perform and converse with local musicians, learning their traditions as she shares her own, all in the service of cross-pollination and the sheer joy of music-making.