Photo: Brett Warren

Alison Brown: The Song of the Banjo

The Song of the Banjo may be Alison Brown's most mainstream effort yet.
Alison Brown
The Song of the Banjo

Born in Hartford Connecticut, Alison Brown established herself as child prodigy of sorts early on, learning to play guitar at the age of eight and banjo — her main instrument — at age ten. At the tender age of 12 she met fiddler Stuart Duncan and began playing professionally with him and his father, traveling around the company while playing a steady string of festivals and competitions and then picking up awards and accolades along the way. Soon after, she made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry, but with academic ambitions in mind, she enrolled at Harvard University, studying history and literature before going on to earn her MBA at UCLA.

Her studies would serve her well in business while also providing a springboard for her musical success. Her band Union Station became one of the more successful groups operating in the burgeoning arena of modern bluegrass, no small accomplishment in itself. She was named 1991‘s Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association and picked up a Grammy that same year for the band’s album I’ve Got That Old Feeling. After serving a stint with Michele Shocked, she and her husband Garry West made a successful foray into the operations arm of the music business, establishing Compass Music in 1995 and signing such luminaries as Victor Wooten, Darol Anger, Catie Curtis, and Colin Hay. Compass soon gained a reputation as being one of the most far-sighted independent labels in Americana realms, and today Brown is not only a respected musician, but also a successful entrepreneur, wife, mother and inspiration to others artists who look to her for guidance.

After a string of critically acclaimed albums and accrued crossover popularity, Brown’s latest outing, the aptly titled The Song of the Banjo may be her most mainstream effort yet. It finds her reinventing a number of popular standards, effortlessly adapting songs such as “Time After Time”, “Dance With Me”, “What’s Going On?” and “Feels So Good” to her fluid picking style. A spate of special guests — the Indigo Girls, Rob Ickes, Colin Hay, Keb Mo, Jake Shimabukuro, Andrea Zonn and drummer Steve Gadd, among them — assist, but there’s little doubt that it’s Brown’s steady vision that provides the vision that propels this set of songs along its way. The material retains the inherent appeal that made them such fan favorites originally, but given Brown’s patented mix of folk, bluegrass, jazz, and even classical music — combined with her astute interpretive instrumental skills — makes this disc a complete delight, whether through focused listens or as a background setting for enjoying other activities. Her take on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David standby “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, with Hay singing lead, is the essence of easy, breezy listening, while her version of Michael Martin Murphy’s “Carolina in the Pines”, which features the Indigos, manages to match the original in terms of pure poignancy and appeal.

The same could be said for every other track offered herein, thanks to the fluency and finesse which Brown and her co-conspirators share throughout. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that The Song of the Banjo is a universal delight.

RATING 7 / 10