On tour in China last year, Abigail Washburn told the Beijing Wall Street Journal that seeking to blend classic American bluegrass with traditional Chinese rhythms was her way of capturing “what it’s like to be caught between two cultures”. Her debut, Song of the Traveling Daughter, does this by substituting banjos and guitar for Chinese bamboo flutes and the ehru to create a new style of American roots music, one that magically plunks the reader on a Louisiana porch swing beneath a dusty pink Chongqing sunset.
To make her point that bluegrass and bamboo are related in terms of style and expression, Washburn opens Song with a selection of ultra-American tracks, heavy on the folk with just a hint of Eastern influence. It’s during these early moments that Washburn starts to build a kind of signature fierceness. The songs, “Sometimes”, “Rockabye Dixie”, and “Coffee’s Cold”, move along with so much gusto as to all but beg the listener to grab their clogs and hit the dance floor. As the same time, the lyrics here are so lost in longing and rumination that dancing almost seems thoroughly insensitive. How do you rightly kick up your heels to a woman singing about death, loneliness, rain, and tears?
“Burning house in Tupelo/ Devil’s fire from down below/ Politician sang to me/ Someday girl we’ll all be free,” Washburn sings on “Sometimes”, with that lively banjo hitting high notes all over the place. The liveliness of these songs is revealed as incidental, though, as track after track retains this upbeat-downbeat juxtaposition. Washburn’s banjo has a naturally zesty rhythm that isn’t meant to be particularly ironic, but representative of a genre that’s very purpose seems to be to invigorate even the most depressing of circumstances.
It’s this understanding of bluegrass, and particularly the original Appalachian bluegrass, that allows Washburn to blend her rhythms with such confidence. She remains true to the tenor of old-style bluegrass while shooting it in the heart with her own ultra-contemporary twist. As much as she succeeds in resurrecting Cousin Emmy with her lyrical and vocal grace, she can’t help but bring to mind Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and in the album’s more self-reflective moments, Rumble Doll-era Patti Scialfa (especially on the final track, “Momma”).
The album’s Chinese leanings work, too, in giving the album its modern vibe. While not an entirely new concept (her co-producer Bela Fleck has been blending world music styles forever and even released the Chinese-tinged Tabula Rasa with Jie-Bing Chen and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt back in 1996), Washburn’s style blending comes more from an introspective standpoint than a musical one. In the liner notes for the album, she discusses how immersion in the Chinese culture as a college student forced her to re-evaluate her American self:
Living in China… became not only a voyage from home, but also a discovery of home. Many things took on new meaning for me: biscuits and gravy, soda pop, stars and stripes, bluegrass, rap, NASCAR, wide streets, suburbs, individual debt, and civil rights… all things seemingly uniquely American. When I returned to America, I wanted to continue the exploration, to delve deeper into the roots of things American.
The results of this exploration are revealed delicately and without such concrete imagery. While Washburn’s songs are little stories, especially “Single Drop of Honey” and the shocking and brilliant “Eve Stole the Apple”, they’re rather sparse lyrically and need close observation to reveal their hidden messages and truths.
Sometimes, though, these truths are in the music. In the case of “The Lost Lamb” and “Song of the Traveling Daughter”, unless the listener speaks fluent Mandarin, the music’s all she’s got to unravel and understand. Washburn fills out the album with these tracks, performed entirely in Mandarin, alongside a punchy rendition of the traditional Chinese melody, “Purple Bamboo”. Sticking to her initial objective of highlighting the effortless blend of bluegrass and Chinese music, smack in the middle of these tracks, Washburn sings the blues classic “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” to an arrangement of her own that perfectly shows off the interchangeability of these styles. Blind Willie’s “Nobody’s Fault” easily lends itself to Washburn’s lilting arrangement without losing for a second its original, almost raging, temper.
The result of all this culture hopping and genre swapping is an emotional work that moves as it educates. Washburn’s album is a genuine find, a recording with a purpose beyond music and into the heart — perhaps the very key to bluegrass and its recent revival.