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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

She was born in Illinois, but when Abigail Washburn picks up her old-time banjo and starts to sing, she often delivers her lyrics in Chinese. It turns out she was speaking Chinese before she learned to play the banjo. In her early 20s, Abigail Washburn lived in the city of Chengdu. Her immersion in Chinese culture inspired her to reconnect with the roots of American music. As part of the series Musicians In Their Own Words, Washburn says she's not surprised when people are skeptical of what she does.

Ms. ABIGAIL WASHBURN (Musician): If I saw somebody else who came out with an album that was part Chinese or part Japanese and they were this American, you know, like the Chinese say, (Chinese spoken), foreigners, you know, I would definitely look at it and go, `Well, who is she to be doing that?'

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing in Chinese)

At first, I would say I was sort of laughed at and thought of as a bit of a novelty for playing the banjo and singing in Chinese, you know. But it's just me. It's just me. There's no way around it.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing in Chinese)

I really enjoyed going to watch the Sichuan Opera when I lived in Chengdu. The old folks, the retired folks generally were the audience, and they'd sit there and they'd go, `Ho, ho, ho,' and people were, like, (sings in a high-pitched voice), you know, like, doing that? I don't know what I'm doing, obviously, but it was really a thrill and there was--compared to what I'm used to, there was a really loose sense of rhythm and it was all about sort of the emotive quality and that definitely affected the way I thought about my music because I wanted the musical representation of the songs to be felt. Like, the song "Red & Blazing," it's very much about a flow and the point is about swells, the emotional swells of grief.

(Soundbite of "Red & Blazing")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) I'll turn my head to the calling sun. If you'll rise and meet me, I'll walk the road ...(unintelligible) from you. Oh, day of (unintelligible) in the red sky and blazing.

"The Lost Lamb" is inspired by an experience I had when I was in Vermont right before I moved to Nashville. I helped to teach English as a second language. And I worked with the seven Chinese guys in town and all of these guys came to the States thinking that they could make more money to send back their families, and eventually they'd bring their families with them.

(Soundbite of "The Lost Lamb")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing in Chinese)

This one fellow, one night I had him over for dinner. He showed up and he really looked downtrodden and sad. And I said, `What's going on? (Chinese spoken).' He said, `Well, read this letter.' And he gave it to me and it was from his wife, and she was saying, `You've been gone for four years now and I don't know when you're coming back. I'm afraid I'm never going to see you again. So I think your daughter and I need to start a new life without you.' And I didn't--how do you--what do you do with an experience like that?

(Soundbite of "The Lost Lamb")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing in Chinese)

It's using this imagery that you see a lot in, like, classical Chinese poetry about missing your home, the ancient home, the true home. It's just about being at the greatest edge of loneliness, really.

(Soundbite of "The Lost Lamb")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing in Chinese)

"Halo" I wrote with my grandpa in his nursing home. When I went to visit him, he'd often comment on my halo. But of course I couldn't see. And he always--he had pictures of Jesus with these beautiful halos. And so I asked him if he'd write a song with me about Jesus' halo. During those years, he'd have his tape recorder and he'd pull it over and he'd record himself talking to different people that he cared about. He had dementia, so some it made perfect sense and some if it made no sense at all, and then there's beautiful stuff in between that was somehow a manifestation of being loose enough not to be too logical and yet lucid enough to make sense of things that never make sense.

He once said to me, `Abigail, I just want to light you up,' and he just kept saying it over and over again. He said, `I just want to light you up, I just want to light you up, light you up.'

(Soundbite of "Halo")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) He says to me, `Want to light you up, want to light you up in the darkened day.'

I feel like the one insight that's extremely comforting to me about the world is that we all share the same pool of emotion that we draw from. So my greatest hope would be that sharing what I do in these songs is about a deep connection. I don't think I'm unique in what I'm expressing.

(Soundbite of "Halo")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) Water's white, but I can't stay. I don't know where I'm going, but his halo lights my way. He said to me, `Want to light you up, want to light you up in the darkened day.' My halo's bright...

MONTAGNE: Abigail Washburn with music from her new CD "Song of the Traveling Daughter." We heard from her as part of the series Musicians In Their Own Words. You can learn more about the music and hear Abigail Washburn tune up her banjo at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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