Abigail Washburn: Giving Up China For The Banjo Washburn almost left the U.S. for China, where she'd planned to spend the rest of her days practicing law. As luck would have it, though, her growing fascination with learning the banjo led her to an unlikely recording career. Washburn's new album is titled City of Refuge.
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Abigail Washburn: Giving Up China For The Banjo

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Abigail Washburn: Giving Up China For The Banjo

Abigail Washburn: Giving Up China For The Banjo

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(Soundbite of song, "City of Refuge")

Ms. ABIGAIL WASHBURN (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible).


You're listening to the music of banjo player, singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn. This is the title track to her second solo album. It's called "City of Refuge," and it's music that almost didn't happen.

You see, Abigail Washburn never saw herself as a musician. After she finished college in Colorado, she'd all but committed herself to a life practicing law in China.

After a life-altering six months there, she returned to the States determined to pack her bags for Beijing once and for all.

Ms. WASHBURN: And I wanted to go on this farewell to America trip, and I jumped in my little red Toyota truck and made my way down the East Coast. And I stopped at an ashram, and I meditated for five days, and things kind of changed after that, I have to say. Things shifted.

And before you know it, I was learning banjo songs in North Carolina, West Virginia, the Augusta Heritage Center. And I ended up at the IBMA, the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky and suddenly, magically, was offered a record deal while sitting in the hallway playing the few songs I knew.

And it blew my mind. It changed my entire trajectory, and before you know it, I was in Nashville cutting demos for a record company.

(Soundbite of song, "City of Refuge")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that I think is remarkable about the idea that, you know, you started making records is this is new to you. I mean, you came to performing as an adult.

Ms. WASHBURN: That's exactly correct. And I will tell you that I ended up in tears a lot in those first few years of trying to transition into being a professional musician, first of all, because I was afraid I was going to lose the connection I had had to China, secondly, because I wasn't particularly good at music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHBURN: It was really frustrating. You know, I was trying to learn how to play the banjo as quick as I could. And before you know it, I was on stages, playing in front of audiences. What a different skill that is to try and emcee a show in front of a big group of people.

I played for five years in an all-girl string band called Uncle Earl. I was also in a roots chamber group called Sparrow Quartet with Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee.

WERTHEIMER: Now, maybe I should just interject here that you're married to Bela Fleck.

Ms. WASHBURN: That's true. That's definitely true.

WERTHEIMER: I mean, he's a banjo - well, how would you say? I mean, he's in some kind of firmament as a banjo player.

Ms. WASHBURN: To most people, he's a banjo god of sorts.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHBURN: I said it. You didn't have to say it.


(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: And you collaborated on this new album with someone who sort of pulled you in different directions, a person named Kai Welch. Tell me about him.

Ms. WASHBURN: I was at a club called The Basement here in Nashville, and a band called Tommy and the Whale was playing. And there was this guy up on stage, and he was picking up every instrument.

He had the accordion, he's playing keys. He'd jump up and lead a horn line on the trumpet, and then he'd be singing like an angel. I was just blown away watching this guy.

And I went over to him, and I introduced myself. And it took about a year and a half, but we finally connected.

(Soundbite of song, "Chains")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) Running out of time standing still. Something's got to change or nothing will. You got to leave your home rattle all your bones and shake off your chains, all of your chains.

WERTHEIMER: The song "Chains." What can you tell me about the song?

Ms. WASHBURN: Well, I wish Kai were here because he's the one who wrote that. He wrote that with a fellow named Tommy Hans. And I think they were in a Fleetwood Mac kind of mood because there's definitely those sounds on there.

And in fact, before we did that take of that song, he probably said something like: Stevie Nicks this one, Abby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Chains")

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) She could stare right through his youthful face.

WERTHEIMER: My guest is Abigail Washburn, and her latest album is called "City of Refuge." Now, to my ear, your voice really takes off on the track "Bright Morning Stars."

(Soundbite of song, "Bright Morning Stars")

Mr. TIM O'BRIEN and Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: Now, who are you singing with here?

Ms. WASHBURN: I was singing with Tim O'Brien. Tim O'Brien is one of my musical heroes. I'm so glad he wanted to be on that track. That song is "Bright Morning Stars," and it's as old as we know or don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHBURN: It probably traveled across the ocean at some early, early date with the immigrants and became what it is now.

WERTHEIMER: But it's still - that's way far from China. It sounds very American. It sounds like - at some points, it sounds like you're about to launch into a shape-note version of "Amazing Grace."

Ms. WASHBURN: But there is an important thing. You said it sounds as far from China as possible, but there's a really cool thing that happened. I sent that track over to my friends in a Mongolian string band in Beijing, and there is actually throat-singing almost the entire way through the record by my friends in Beijing in a Mongolian string band. So that is present on that track. And I think it's kind of a neat thing to add in, in response to you saying it's far away from China.

WERTHEIMER: You're right.

(Soundbite of song, "Bright Morning Stars")

WERTHEIMER: So tell us the story of meeting Mr. Banjo, the banjo-playing Bela Fleck.

Ms. WASHBURN: I met Bela for the first time at a square dance in Nashville, which is - seemed miracle because he doesn't usually play square dances. It was a unique moment that he did that.

Nothing in particular came of that night, other than getting to meet him. But over time, we ran into each other socially in Nashville. And this one time, we were at a party, and I gave him a demo of my music that I had just been starting to write and record and asked him if he had any thoughts.

And he said he got in his car, and on the way home, he put in the demo. And as he was listening, I guess his foot got really heavy, and he wasn't thinking about it. Ad before you know it, he was speeding. And he got pulled over, and he was forced to walk the line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHBURN: And he said he knew from then on out he was a fan of the music, and it just sort of took off from there.

WERTHEIMER: That's Abigail Washburn. Her new album is called "City of Refuge." If you'd like to hear some more tracks, you can listen at our website, nprmusic.org.

Abigail, thank you very much.

Ms. WASHBURN: Thank you, Linda.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WASHBURN: (Singing) All the joy that it brings. (Unintelligible) the speed of sound to turn this world around (unintelligible). You have washed your hands of sin in the...

WERTHEIMER: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. Guy Raz is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great week.

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