Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet: Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet
Bluegrass masters journey from Appalachia to Asia and back, often in the course of a single tune.
When Abigail Washburn sings, “I’m going to North Carolina, baby mine … I’m going to North Carolina / And from there on to China / I’m going off to China, baby mine” in the bluegrass hoe-down “Banjo Pickin’ Girl”, she means it literally. Washburn is a singer and banjo player who came to American traditional music through a very untraditional route: by way of her interest in Chinese language and culture. Her love for and study of the Mandarin language and Chinese culture in general, developed through stints living in China on and off for more than a decade, prompted a re-examination of her own cultural roots and led her to American old-time music and to performing with the string quartet Uncle Earl. Unexpectedly beginning a career in American roots music but reluctant to abandon her engagement with China, Washburn began performing traditional bluegrass songs translated into Mandarin. This in turn led to the formation of Washburn’s own group, the Sparrow Quartet, and to their busy touring schedule over the past four years as part of cultural exchange programs both in the United States and all over China.
Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet is Washburn’s second album experimenting with the traditions and boundaries of American and Chinese folk music, following 2005’s Songs of the Traveling Daughter. Washburn couldn’t have assembled a better group of American musicians to serve as cross-cultural musical emissaries. Backing Washburn’s vocals and clawhammer banjo playing are Ben Sollee on cello, Casey Driessen on fiddle, and Bela Fleck on a second banjo in three-finger style (Fleck also produced the album). Sollee has been heralded for his use of plucking and bowing techniques to play around folk, classical, and soul genres on the cello, and Driessen is a Grammy-nominated fiddler long active on the roots circuit supporting players such as Fleck and Tim O’Brien. Fleck, of course, ranks among the best banjo players in the world, and has made his career not just on his virtuosic playing but also on his ability to fuse bluegrass with jazz, classical, pop, and nearly any other genre he can find.
Singing American folk tunes in Mandarin and playing traditional Chinese songs on the banjo sounds like it might just be a gimmick, but these musicians are already masters at bringing disparate musical elements together, and they approach their compositions with a clear sense of creative and intellectual curiosity and knowledge of what sounds good to the ear, no matter the nationality of the person to whom that ear belongs. Together they’ve assembled a collection of 13 songs that explore not just the juxtapositions of disparate cultural styles, but also how often these styles share characteristics and can be melded seamlessly.
A journey to find the borderlands between musical sounds seems to be the motivating force behind the arrangements here. In “Captain”, Washburn’s plaintive call, “Oh, the water”, is echoed by a fiddle line that evokes (though not quite imitates) the Chinese two-stringed fiddle erhu, before the band launches into the slow-burning (and thoroughly southeastern American) intensity of the seafaring story that follows. One of the compositions performed in Mandarin, ”Taiyang Chulai” (“The Sun Rises”), is a play on a traditional song with origins in China’s Sichuan province and also features the fiddle and banjo standing in for the erhu and the zhongruan, a four-stringed tenor lute. Even more compelling are tunes like “Sugar & Pie”, which combines Washburn’s Mandarin vocals with swinging Appalachian dance banjo and fiddle interplay. The group’s style isn’t confined to traditional Appalachian and Han Chinese influences, either; in “A Kazakh Melody”, the quartet invokes the music of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, a song whose sweetly rueful tune calls to an American mind the frontier ballads of the plains of the Western United States.
Washburn’s voice can range from sweetly honeyed to intense and wiry, depending on the mood of the song, and it provides another of the album’s pleasures. Her musicality must have aided her in her study of Mandarin’s tones, and here she is pitch-perfect on the four tracks performed in Mandarin. She’s also taken cues from Chinese singers, and incorporates tonal variations and unexpected lyrical pauses that initially sound unfamiliar to Western listeners but which work in surprising concert with the Appalachian rhythms she sings above.
The Mandarin term for China, Zhongguo, literally means “the Middle Kingdom” -- the kingdom between heaven and earth -- and the exploration of the spaces in between is a guiding principle for the songs on this album. On the gauzily playful track “Great Big Wall in China”, Washburn asks “a distant star / Where the blooming flowers are / She may shoot us back on a jumbled ray / To the land from where we came” -- and on the way back to earth sees the Great Wall from space. The musical exploration on which the Sparrow Quartet leads a curious listener isn’t quite so celestial, but after listening to this album, the experience of being shot to someplace completely foreign and then, just as quickly, returned to the familiar is one to which a listener will be able to relate.