Music

Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge

Abigail Washburn is a bluegrass artist with a global focus, and on City of Refuge, she collaborates with indie rock artists, including the Decemberists' producer Tucker Martine and guitarist Chris Funk.


Abigail Washburn

City of Refuge

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2011-01-11
UK Release Date: 2011-01-31
Amazon
iTunes

There’s a tune on Abigail Washburn’s debut that I’ve kept returning to since I first heard it. Called “Backstep Cindy / Purple Bamboo”, it’s an old-timey banjo tune that, halfway through, morphs into a traditional Chinese flute piece, arranged in this case for banjo, fiddle and cello. Like the best of Washburn’s work, the tune gracefully bridges a gap between the traditions of two different cultures. It’s fusion in the truest sense of the word.

For Washburn, fusion is a way of life. She’s a truly multicultural person, living and recording in Nashville, but touring and teaching in China; fluent in both English and Mandarin. It’d be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a Chinese/bluegrass schtick artist, though. Her scope is global and her musical appetite is boundless. She founded, with husband Bela Fleck, the progressive bluegrass chamber group The Sparrow Quartet and collaborated with hip-hop artists on a found sound/electronica project to benefit survivors of the Sichuan earthquakes. I admire her for her willingness to try anything, but her most rewarding works to date -- and, ironically, her most successful attempts at fusion -- have been her most strictly traditional, whether old-timey or Chinese. It’s a cool reminder that even experimental music is done best when it’s deeply rooted in tradition.

For her latest, City of Refuge, Washburn has chosen a new crop of eclectic and high profile collaborators, including guitarist Bill Frisell and guzheng player Wu Fei. Most of the buzz in the folk press, however, has been about her choice to reach out to several artists in the indie rock world: The Decemberists’ Chris Funk, My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and, most notably, Nashville songwriter Kai Welch and Portland producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Laura Veirs, Erin McKeown). While there’s nothing particularly new or exciting about indie/ folk crossovers, this collaboration is an inspired move for two reasons.

The first reason is songwriting. When Washburn’s fallen short in the past, it’s been because her expansive vision is beyond the reach of her songwriting voice. She’s always been at her best as an old-timey folk singer, and her experiments beyond that realm, while admirable, haven’t always succeeded. Here, Welch co-writes half the album’s tracks, fully fleshing out ideas -- like the lazy, Eastern-tinged chamber folk of “Bring Me My Queen” or the AM-radio folk-pop of “Chains” -- that may have seemed half-formed on previous albums. This allows Washburn to be her old-timey self while Welch’s more varied musical vocabulary fills in the gaps.

That brings us to the second reason: context. Washburn’s M.O. as an artist has always been cultural exchange, and City of Refuge is no different. This sets it apart from other indie/folk crossovers because Washburn recognizes indie rock as its own tradition with its own set of rules: namely, careful attention to texture and a command of an eclectic array of genres. Throughout the record, Washburn stays in her territory and lets her collaborators respond from theirs. This is not a bid for relevance or wider appeal, nor is it a betrayal of her traditional roots; it’s a conversation. And it’s a conversation that gets interesting.

For instance, check out the killer combo that closes the album. “Divine Bell”, a co-write with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, is the most old-timey thing here, a true country gospel tune about the end of suffering. Not only is it explicitly Christian, it’s pretty Dispensationalist, and its regionalism is pitch-perfect, both in eschatology and twang. Then, closer “Bright Morning Stars” is an Appalachian folk song that Washburn, Secor and fellow Old Crow Morgan Jahnig sing in Sacred Harp-style acapella. It’s not a hymn, though -- it’s a mourning song -- and its more inclusive vision of hope is given startling depth by Washburn’s choice to superimpose it over throat-singing by Mongolian string band Hanggai. That one-two punch poignantly closes a record about homesickness and community on a note of provocatively spiritual -- and entirely global -- uplift.

Despite her music, Washburn will be pigeonholed and overlooked. She’s a chick folk singer, after all, who plays old-timey banjo and has expanded her palette to include lush indie rock production, none of which makes her especially fashionable. She’s not as rich a storyteller as Patty Griffin, nor does she have Gillian Welch’s sheer command of the American songbooks. But with City of Refuge she’s establishing herself as a representative from her genre in a multicultural conversation about globalism and history, which places her more in a league with artists like Amadou & Mariam. Like the Malian couple, she’s a fiercely talented musician with omnivorous taste and a strategic eye for collaborators, and like them, she’s a dreamer with vision. Here’s hoping the big, wide world she loves so much takes notice.

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image