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. Abigail pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, and the results feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody’s ever heard before.
One fateful day 11 years ago, Washburn was miraculously offered a record deal in the halls of a bluegrass convention in Kentucky which changed her trajectory from becoming a lawyer in China to a traveling folk musician. Since then, Abigail has been recording and touring a continuous stream of music. Her music ranges from the “all-g’earl” string band sound of Uncle Earl to her bi-lingual solo release Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005), to the mind-bending “chamber roots” sound of the Sparrow Quartet, to the rhythms, sounds and stories of Afterquake, her fundraiser CD for the Sichuan earthquake victims. The New York Times praised her 2011 release, City of Refuge, written with collaborator Kai Welch, saying the the songs “mingle Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” Her most recent release, Echo in the Valley (2017), was recorded with her husband, 15-time Grammy award winning banjo virtuoso, Béla Fleck. Echo in the Valleyis the follow up to Béla and Abigail’s acclaimed, self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album. Currently, Abigail and Béla are touring the world with their growing little boy, Juno, and welcomed their newborn son, Theodore Wilder, in June.
Having toured the world, Washburn is also armed with Chinese language ability and profound connections to culture and people on the other side of the Pacific. Washburn is one of the few foreign artists currently touring China independently and regularly. She completed a month-long tour (Nov-Dec 2011) of China’s Silk Road supported by grants from the US Embassy, Beijing. Abigail, along with 24 other innovative and creative thinkers worldwide, was named a TED fellow and gave a talk at the 2012 TED Convention in Long Beach about building US-China relations through music. In March of 2013, she was commissioned by New York Voices and the NY Public Theater to write and debut a theatrical work titled, Post-American Girl, which draws from her 17-year relationship with China and addresses themes of expanding identity, cultural relativism, pilgrimage, the universal appeal of music and opening the heart big enough to fold it all in. Abigail was recently named the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University, in addition to Carolina Performing Arts/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s DisTil Fellow for 2018-2020. Her efforts to share US music in China and Chinese music in the US exist within a hope that cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound rooted in tradition will lead the way to a richer existence.