Alison Brown: Song of the Banjo

by Kerry Dexter /
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May 16, 2016 / 0 comments

Growing up in Connecticut, eight year old Alison Brown was learning to play guitar when she heard a recording by bluegrass musicians Flatt and Scruggs. She fell in love with the banjo. "I knew I wanted to make *that* sound," she recalls.

 Alison Brown: Song of the Banjo

So she has, playing and writing award winning bluegrass music and taking her instrument into jazz, Celtic, Americana, folk, rock, and pop - and into music which mixes of all these genres where she creates her own unique ideas. 

All of that comes in on her album The Song of the Banjo, where she draws on a range of styles, influences, and collaborations to bring the melodic side of the instrument to the fore. 

 Alison Brown: Song of the Banjo

Back when she was starting out on banjo, though, a career as a professional musician didn't seem to be her path. She won awards, played a one night gig at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and recorded an album with fiddler Stuart Duncan before the two had finished high school, but was not looking toward a future in music. Her parents were both lawyers "and we all thought I'd be a doctor, or some sort of professional," she says. While in college at Harvard, she took part in the flourishing bluegrass scene in Cambridge by playing with the band Northern Lights. Deciding pre-med courses weren't for her, she took a degree in literature and went on for an MBA at UCLA. Opportunities in mainstream music business turned out not to appeal, though, so after grad school she took a job as an investment banker with the San Francisco office of Smith Barney, being a financial professional by day and playing bluegrass sessions by night.

"I was going to work every day with people who woke up and took a shower and ate breakfast thinking about how to restructure bond issues," Brown realized, "while I was waking up every day taking a shower and eating breakfast and thinking about music." That led her to save up her money and take what she planned to be a six month career break to write music -- a break which changed her course in life. As that six months was drawing to a close and Brown was thinking about finding a music business job, bluegrass artist Alison Krauss came calling and asked Brown to join her band. A stint with rocker Michelle Shocked followed, and after that a move to Nashville, and the founding, a bit more than twenty years ago now, of Compass Records. Compass is known for excellence in business dealings as well artistic integrity and creativity. Brown and her husband and co-founder of Compass Garry West, also a musician, have no doubts, though, that "we founded it as artists, absolutely." 

That commitment to creativity -- that thinking about music -- is a force which has kept Brown writing and recording music for her own projects alongside the needs of building and sustaining an independent record company, playing on albums with other artists and producing their albums, and being a wife and mother. Her joy in creating music, and in collaborating with other artists, comes through clearly on the tracks on The Song of the Banjo.

The dozen tracks (plus an extra one on the deluxe version of the recording) are balanced between Brown originals and reworkings of pop and rock classics of the seventies and eighties, songs Brown grew up with or especially loves. 

Her original pieces range from melodic pop to a piece with a classical tinge to another that brings in a jazz atmosphere and another with more than a touch of Celtic style. Many people will first associate the banjo with really fast arpeggiated chords behind car chases on screen or corn pone jokes on television. Brown wanted to focus on the melodic aspect of the instrument, "to reach into the legacy of the banjo," she says, "and show what it can really do."

Melody has been a longtime interest for the artist, which you can discern should you listen to her earlier, more bluegrass focused albums, as well as ones which focus more on the jazz aspect of her work. 

Here is a piece from an earlier album, The Company You Keep, called Under the (Five) Wire.

On The Song of the Banjo, her explorations in tone and timing, touch and melodic line carry her ideas across several genres and make her voice clear though she does not sing a note. This presence and coherence of idea is as notable in the songs and the instrumentals created from songs as it is in Brown's original instrumental pieces. 

For instance...

*Colin Hay sings a rough edged yet entirely in the spirit of the song vocal on the Bacharach/David classic I'll Never Fall in Love Again, with Brown adding a different twist to the banjo sound by playing her custom made banjola for the track. 

*Piano master John Jarvis helps lead the dance of notes for an instrumental version of Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time where Brown's emphasis on melody shows clearly. She has pointed out that many people are not familiar with what the banjo can do or even what it sounds like when playing music other than those fast paced bluegrass runs. By using it on familiar songs, she hopes to give people a way in to hearing possibilities of the instrument they may not have thought of before.

*Hear this for yourself on Brown's take on the Chuck Mangione piece Feels So Good

*Carolina in the Pines is a contemporary bluegrass classic, with a banjo on the original recording by its writer, Michael Martin Murphey. In Brown's version, though, female voices (The Indigo Girls) take the singer's part, piano plays what were the banjo lines, and Brown's banjo takes on what was the piano's line. True to the spirit of the song, indeed, and with refreshing approaches which make the song all Brown's own.

"Familiar music allows folks to understand an instrument that they may not be overly familiar with," Brown says. "The banjo is a complex instrument, with melodic ideas normally surrounded by rapid fire arpeggiated chords, but when you play a familiar tune it allows the audience to hear the voice of the instrument, and to understand how the playing style is integrated into, and around, the melody."

Her original pieces have the gift of sounding both familiar and new. Each of them is well worth your listening, from the dancing notes of the title track which opens things up through country vibes, bluegrass tinged tunes, rock and pop flavored melodies, and tunes which draw on Celtic and folk influences. 

"I've always liked the idea of composing for ensembles," Brown says, and when she tours it is usually with bassist West and two other musicians as the Alison Brown Quartet. A strong yet quiet presence in both the art and business aspects of music, Brown has a range of musical friends to call on whenever she chooses to record, and for this project those she invited along included Irish guitar great John Doyle, long time musical collaborator Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Steve Gadd on drums, and Andrea Zonn on strings.  "When I arrange a song or write a piece of music, I really enjoy interweaving the different musical voices ," she says "That way you get more of a tapestry rather than a bunch of people backing up one sound."

For a project which includes covers of writers from Michael Martin Murphey to Marvin Gaye and originals which cross boundaries and genres from classical to soul to Americana to bluegrass. Brown's tapestry hold many colors, with the sound of her banjo being the bright thread which pulls through.  With The Song of the Banjo, "my hope," Alison Brown  says, "is that folks who think they don't like the five string banjo will discover that they really do."

Alison Brown: Song of the Banjo

Kerry Dexter is music editor for Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may also find her work, mainly about music, the arts, history, and travel, in National Geographic Traveler, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places online and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road