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World Music Features

Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet

By Jim Bessman
Published August 18, 2008

Blowing away the cultural barrier between America and Asia, the special blend of Appalachian and Chinese music that propels banjoist Abigail Washburn’s work with the Sparrow Quartet may have started out as a fluke, but now seems more natural a fusion than ever.

The group’s latest album, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet, also stars fellow banjo player (and the album’s producer) Belá Fleck, along with the equally inventive cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen, and very much clarifies the vision that Washburn sketched out two years ago on The Sparrow Quartet EP.


“I lived in Shanghai and Chengdu for some time,” she says, recalling her earliest visit to the region, long before she became an acclaimed musician. “Once I came back to the U.S., I felt an almost unconscious need to find an element of America that I could make my own. I could hear the thread running between the American and Chinese rural traditions, and that idea of country music and folk music being universal is special. I think we’re seeing more of that connection now as a function of living in a global world, where all of us have an opportunity to sample each other’s respective cultures.”


The Sparrow Quartet’s music is itself an extension of the sound Washburn explored on her 2005 solo release Song Of The Traveling Daughter, which followed two albums with the old-timey folk-styled girl group Uncle Earl. “That was very much a band sound with mostly traditional songs,” Washburn recalls of the latter, “whereas my record was inspired by traditional music, but was more about my songwriting and composition, with a big focus on my Chinese experience. The songs were also more in the ‘verseverse- chorus’ structure.”


According to Washburn, the new album was a collaborative process: she’d bring in lyrics and melodies, but the arrangements were fleshed out by the group, with an eye on letting each musician attain the full reach of the instrument. “Ben is a classically trained cellist who was raised listening to folk music and R&B,” she explains, “and Casey is one of the best bluegrass fiddlers, and a tremendous percussionist on the fiddle. All our compositions require tapping into our highest musical selves, but only to serve the heart of the song.”


She takes the leadoff track “A Fuller Wine,” which actually flows from the preceding China-flavored “Overture” instrumental (save for Washburn’s yodeling), as an example. “I had a banjo part, and had to figure out how to have the other instruments accompany it with composed parts,” she says. The big trick was for Fleck to create banjo rolls that wouldn’t overwhelm her own playing, “so he had to find a part that emphasized the importance of the words— an emotional approach to instrumentation and composition in giving a sense of the poetic imagery. He came up with a roll to emphasize the searching quality of the lyric.”