Abigail Washburn

Abigail Washburn Biography

Abigail Washburn never set out to be a songwriter or a recording artist. So when she found herself on stage in a smoke filled Beijing club playing her banjo and singing old time Appalachian mountain music in Chinese to a packed house, she was as surprised as anyone.

“During my Freshman year at Colorado College, I joined a summer program trip to China,” Washburn recalled. “It had a profound effect on me. I discovered a Chinese culture that was so deep and ancient; it changed my perspective on America.” On her return to the States, Washburn began to explore American culture, a journey that led her back to her native country’s traditional roots. When she heard Doc Watson playing “Shady Grove” on the banjo, something clicked and the connection that eventually led to Song of the Traveling Daughter was made.

On Song of the Traveling Daughter, Washburn sings simple haunting songs and plays the banjo. Musically, the album is one of the most bare bones debuts in recent memory. Washburn and fellow producers Reid Scelza and Bela Fleck keep the focus where it belongs: on the singer and the song. The arrangements were built around Washburn’s evocative vocals and clawhammer banjo style, and Ben Sollee’s cello, an instrument that brings a dark, primeval feel to songs that sound like they’re hundreds of years old. The sparse instrumental work of guitarist Jordan McConnell (of The Duhks), upright bass player Amanda Kowalski, fiddler Casey Driessen, percussionist Ryan Hoyle (of Collective Soul), keyboard and accordion player Tim Lauer, along with Fleck’s national steel guitar and banjo, add subtle grace notes to Washburn’s timeless tales.

Song of the Traveling Daughter is an old fashioned album with a simple, textured beauty that unfolds with repeated listening. There’s a flow to the music that draws you in and immerses you in Washburn’s unique worldview. While the album is studded with gems, several tracks stand out. “Rockabye Dixie” is a brokenhearted lullaby full of loss and longing, co-written by Beau Stapleton of Blue Merle. “Coffee’s Cold” is a jaunty ragtime blues, with a bouncy bass line and exuberant vocal delivery. “Eve Stole the Apple” is the most atypical tune on the album, full of odd rhythmic accents. Part field hollar, part old English folk song; the tune is marked by an impressionist lyric that blends Biblical and folkloric images. “Deep in the Night” is a poetic exploration of darkness that features one of Washburn’s most stirring vocals and the accents of Tim Lauer’s accordion.

“Song of the Traveling Daughter,” one of Washburn’s Chinese songs, and another album highlight, was inspired by the classical Chinese poem “Song of the Traveling Son.” “It’s actually harder to put English words to music than Chinese,” Washburn explained. “Chinese is all one or two syllable words and most have open vowels at the end of the word, so the language almost sings by itself. If it has a closed sound it’s usually something soft like ‘teng’ or ‘mang.’ If you listen closely to ‘Song of the Traveling Daughter,’ you can hear how easy it is to put them to music.”

Although she’s been singing all her life, Washburn never had her heart set on a musical career. Her songwriting, performing and recording career came about after an unlikely series of serendipitous events.

“I always loved to sing. In college I was in an all-woman’s a cappella group and realized I had a pretty good voice.” Washburn sang backup in soul and reggae bands and joined an African-American Gospel choir, but never thought about a musical career. In 1996 she joined a summer program in China. “During my first week at Fudan University in Shanghai, I found out I was absorbing the language quickly, which was a surprise.” On Washburn’s second 6 month stint in China she stayed in Chengdu, Sichuan, and fell in love with Chinese culture; at times she found herself wondering what American culture had to offer the world.

Once back in the States, she developed a new desire to explore her own culture and traditional roots. She bought a banjo and carried it around without touching it for years. "It was 2002, I was living in Vermont working as a lobbyist when my good friends, the Cleary Brothers old-time string band, lost their banjo player after setting up a tour of Alaska. I got a crash course in banjo and joined the band for the tour." Washburn sang lead, harmony, and played the banjo, and discovered a love for live performance.

After the tour, Washburn took a roadtrip to Nashville. Along the way she stopped at a bluegrass conference (IBMA) in Louisville, KY where she met young American roots musicians making a career at playing music. "I realized then and there that I might be one of them… I might be able to live a musical lifestyle, help preserve an American tradition and actually make a living at it."

Within weeks, Abby settled in Nashville and began writing songs and learning more about the tradition of old-time banjo. In the winter of 2004, everything happened at once. Unwilling to give up her passion for the Chinese culture and her desire to continue studying the language, Abby took a day job which involved translating Chinese business documents, and where she met Jing Li Jurca. Jing Li helped Washburn with her first attempt at writing a Chinese song, and began co-writing from there. Soon after, Washburn met the women of the old-time string band Uncle Earl and joined the group; their debut album will be released later this year on Rounder. She entered the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest and won second place for “Rockabye Dixie.” Nettwerk Records A&R met her in a coffee shop, prompted her to finish a demo and within months signed her to a recording contract.

Fall of 2004 she merged her love of China with her new career in American roots music by arranging a small group of good friends and bluegrass pros for a mini-tour of China. “I did ten days with the band and a couple of solo dates,” Washburn said. “The audience was mostly Chinese at the Universities and mainly ex-pats at the bars. We played American folk songs, and original material in both Chinese and English, and it seemed to go over well.

At this point, I’m caught between two cultures, but I like being a bridge. I want to keep going to China and living a creative existence. I want to learn more about Chinese folk traditions, so I can integrate them into my music and continue to be a part of the development of a more universal language.”

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