Reaching Beyond Bluegrass: Alison Brown

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Alison brown

Reaching Beyond Bluegress

by Kara M. Bachman

With a new record on the horizon and a solid career behind her, Grammy Award-winning musician Alison Brown continues to create inclusive and collaborative bluegrass. Her first full record since 2015’s “The Song of the Banjo,” the collection of “mostly original” music slated to drop in September, will be titled “On Banjo” and will feature impressive guest performers.

 

“Spoiler alert…it’s a bit eclectic,” Brown revealed. “There are some interesting collaborations on the project, including a choro with clarinetist Anat Cohen, a duet with Sierra Hull, and a piece with Kronos Quartet.

 

“Steve Martin and I recorded a tune we co-wrote for Scruggs-style and clawhammer banjo, and Stuart Duncan and I did a banjo and fiddle duet inspired by and dedicated to two of our heroes, Byron Berline and John Hickman,” Brown added. “I’ll be touring this summer and fall with my Quintet and doing a few shows with Steve Martin and Martin Short, too.”

To include Latin choro-style music on the upcoming record might come as no surprise to those familiar with Brown’s music, which features collaborations with everyone from bluesman Keb’ Mo’ to inspirational ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro to Irish bouzouki player John Doyle. However, her first love is bluegrass, but she also enjoys folk, jazz, Celtic, Latin, and other music forms. It wasn’t intentional; it happened organically.

 

“I found that when I started to write my tunes, they pretty consistently came out as everything but bluegrass,” Brown explained. But trying to figure out how to put my music across steered her into unexpected musical directions.“It was a bit of a surprise, considering that my roots are in bluegrass, but, in retrospect, I think that musical exploration is very consistent with the legacy of the banjo. It’s been a part of so many different genres over its long history. So, for me, drawing inspiration from other kinds of music and pushing the envelope stylistically for the banjo seems very much in keeping with the spirit of the instrument.”

Alison Brown with Sierra Hull (Rob Laughter Photography)

Brown started playing at age ten. Despite already having played fingerstyle guitar for a few years, she described her banjo beginnings as challenging. Her family’s move to a new place helped kickstart her mastery and propel her to where she is today.

 

“My family relocated to San Diego, and I discovered the San Diego Bluegrass Club,” she recalled. “That’s when the banjo started to come into focus for me. There were so many nice folks in the parking lot jams at club meetings who would give me tips and show me licks. Their musical generosity really opened the door to the instrument for me.”

Connecting to Others

She said connecting with multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan “and his folks” really helped propel her forward.

 

“They welcomed me into their family, letting me tag along to gigs and festivals,” she said. “Eventually, I started playing in bands with Stuart, and, as anyone who has played with Stuart knows, that will definitely lift your playing up!”

 

Even then, Brown said it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she began earnestly thinking about making a career of it.

 

“I’d been to college, business school and had spent a few years in investment banking before I decided to give it a try,” she said. “I joined Alison Krauss and Union Station, and after that, one thing led to the next. I’m happy to say I never had to fall back on investment banking.”

Despite not re-entering banking, her business acumen undoubtedly helped when Brown co-founded the respected music label Compass Records. Today, Compass is internationally recognized and claims an impressive roster of artists.

 

She’s already achieved so much—what could possibly be on her wish list of future goals?

 

“Well,” Brown said, “I think that if you’d asked me that question five, ten, or twenty years ago, I would have given you the same answer. I’ll always be aspiring to be the best musician I can be, trying to deepen my knowledge of the fingerboard as well as my understanding of harmony.”

 

The learning never ends for a true creative. As long as the instrument keeps coming out of its case, the possibilities keep being fed. As music evolves, the ground it covers inevitably enlarges, and that’s fulfilling, even to someone who seems to have already “done it all.”

 

“I think there’s a lot of inspiration to be found in other kinds of music, and I like bringing those ideas back to the banjo and seeing where it can lead,” Brown said of the goal that keeps her going. 

 

“There’s so much beautiful music that can come out of the banjo, and I’m still endlessly fascinated by it.”