Alison Brown talks On Banjo… and Alison Brown

Alison Brown may have taken a chance by opting to release an all-instrumental album. After all, songs that don’t have singing aren’t always the most promising prospects when it comes to  garnering commercial consideration. Nevertheless, as one of today’s most prominent banjo pickers, she has the respect and wherewithal needed to bring that instrument front and center, and give it the proper positioning it deserves. It is, as she herself says, more than merely a background instrument, and, as such, it deserves the respect it’s sometimes denied.

As a result, her new album, On Banjo, lives up to its title by showing the melodic potential that’s sometimes implied, but not always exacted. As Bluegrass Today pointed out in its recent review, every selection manages to make an emphatic imprint, and the lack of vocals doesn’t impede that impression in any of these settings or scenarios.

It is, in fact, almost effortlessly engaging, and given the fact that Brown had a hand in writing practically every offering, it’s a credit not only to her playing and performance, but also to her composition skills as well.

Bluegrass Today
recently had an opportunity to again speak with Ms. Brown, and to gain some insights into how the new album came about. As always, any conversation with Alison Brown is interesting and illuminating.

We pointed out in our Bluegrass Today review that there is some risk in releasing an all instrumental album. So it’s only appropriate that our first question is, why did you choose to go this route?

Well, it’s easy answer. I’m an instrumentalist. It’s kind of what I do. My object was to try to highlight the lyrical side of the banjo. It’s such a good accompaniment instrument, which is why I included vocals on my last album. But with this record, I really just wanted to drill in on tunes that I had written for the banjo, and just unabashedly create an instrumental record.

Let’s face it — a lot of times people make fun of banjo. They even make jokes disparaging those that play it.

I share those jokes too, because they’re so good. But if you’re really good at what you do, then you can take it.

One of the wonderful things about this particular album is that it brings the banjo to the forefront. You’ve put emphasis on the melodic qualities that banjos possess, and that in itself is a wonderful thing.

It’s capable of so much, and while most people feel that it’s only associated with bluegrass music, the fact is, it’s been present in a lot of different kinds of music, and it doesn’t just have to be an accompanying instrument. It can also be a solo voice. Earl Scruggs kind of said that. Earl Scruggs was an instrumentalist; and he was also a great baritone singer, although not a lead singer. And his songbook is full of banjo tunes. That’s where I started. I never felt like they needed words for me to connect with them. It’s an emotion that comes through without the words.

So how did you go about choosing the material for this album? Did you have a lot of tunes to choose from? How did it come about?

I didn’t have a whole bunch that I was considering. I kind of reverse engineered it in a way because there were certain people that I really wanted to collaborate with. And in a lot of cases, I wrote music with those people in mind. The track with Sharon Isbin, Regalito, is one I wrote because I knew I wanted to play with Sharon and so I reached out to her and she said she’d be up for doing something. I asked her if there was a classical piece or a Bach piece or something that she thought would be cool. And she said, “No, just write something.” So that’s kind of how I started down that road. It was the same with the song, Choro Nuf, with Anat Cohen. I’ve listened to her play for so long. She’s a great jazz clarinet player, and a really beautiful player. I’ve watched a bunch of her YouTube videos. And so I wanted to just try to write something that would catch that vibe. I wrote Foggy Morinng Breaking with Steve Martin. We just kind of created it together.

Sierra Hull also plays a pretty major part too.

I wrote Sweet Sixteenth in order to collaborate with Sierra. I’ve never gotten to record a tune that was like that, or so intricate without a team behind it. It’s always been done with Mike Marshall or somebody like that. So to get to do it with another woman just took it to a cool, different, wonderful place.

So it sounds like the impetus and the inspiration for the songs were focused on the people you wanted to collaborate with? You had people in mind, and you kind of went in that direction. Is that what I’m hearing?

That’s a good way to put it. I mean, then there were some things that were done with a band in mind, just because I wanted to feature the band on a few tunes. As far as the guests were concerned, yes, absolutely, I had specific people in mind that I wanted to do something with. Tall Hog at the Trough with StuartDuncan for example. I just wanted to do a little teamwork with Stuart. He and I have been playing together for more years than either one of us would probably care to admit at this point. But I really wanted to create a moment where we could at least channel a little bit of that energy. So that song is kind of a thank you to Byron Berline and John Hickman who were such huge forces when we were both growing up in Southern California, learning to play, and they were hugely inspiring and encouraging to us both.

You’re a very forward thinking musician and individual. And yet, it seems like there’s a certain tradition, a certain heritage, that remains with you. You keep that reverence intact with whatever you do. Is that an apt description of your mindset in some way?

I would say so. My bluegrass roots are really deep. It was bluegrass music, and Earl Scruggs in particular, that kind of caught my ear and started me on this path. I’m not ashamed of that at all. I love to honor that. And then I branch out from from that place. That was my first musical love, and so it’s always fun to allude to it with something I’m doing. If that’s not bluegrass, then somehow it always returns to bluegrass.

We’ve talked about this before, but the fact is, bluegrass seems more popular than ever. It’s become a populist phenomenon with the festivals, and the internet, and so many of the people that are making the music these days. So we’d kind of like to get your opinion on why you think bluegrass attracts this kind of popularity, and what draws people to it? It’s been around for a very long time, of course, but it just seems that maybe in the last decade, it’s had a revival of sorts. So we’re curious to get your thoughts on that.

Well, it’s never really a surprise to me, because it called to me across the country when I was growing up next to the beach in Southern California, and it just really spoke to me. So it’s never surprising to me that other people discover it and love it, because it’s got great energy, and the music is great, and the authenticity of the music is great. It’s the connection to tradition and the connection to roots, which I think is something that speaks to a lot of people.

The community that’s built up around the music is something that I think is really important for people at every stage of life, but especially as we exist more and more in a virtual world where a lot of our interactions with each other are on screen. So to actually be a part of a music where people get together in a field or in a cow pasture somewhere, and stand shoulder to shoulder and cheek to cheek and play music together becomes a really revitalizing kind of experience. And I think it’s really important, like a fundamental human kind of experience that maybe we don’t have as much of as we used to, or as the first generation of musicians did. Then, when you throw in like a once-in-500-years phenomenon like Billy Strings, who really kind of opened the canopy up and invited a lot more people in, that’s going to create a great moment as well.

You should give yourself credit as well, particularly the record label you own and operate, Compass Records, which has done a phenomenal job of furthering the exposure for bluegrass music, and helping create a new awareness. Y’all have championed it. You’ve really made your your company kind of a focal point for a lot of what’s happening with that music these days. That’s got to be very satisfying.

You know, it’s funny. I’m clearly a lifer in this music. I started my first genuine bluegrass club when I was twelve. So it’s getting to be a long time ago. I’ve been in this community for a long time and it’s pretty amazing really to have that kind of longevity with any relationship. Even to have a relationship with people that’s spanned that whole time. So my connection to the music and the community is many, many years at this point. And of course, I’m going to do everything that I can to try to help bring the music forward in the best possible way so that the next generation discovers it. Hopefully, they’ll find some records that will still have the legs to go forward into the future. That’s what we’re trying to do at Compass. It’s about keeping production values high and supporting the music and the artists to the best possible advantage. 

You succeed with that. So now what’s the plan? Are you going to be touring behind this record?

We’re always touring. Right now, we’re doing quite a few more shows than usual and playing to promote the new record. We’re just doing what we all do.

Your husband Garry West is always out there and doing the heavy lifting when he’s not onstage. It’s quite admirable.

That’s true. Plus our engineer does some of the heavy lifting too, like, literally heavy lifting by putting everything in place. Touring, it takes a village, or at least a small village in our case.

So how extensive will your roadwork be in the coming weeks or months? Do you have a big itinerary ahead of you?

No, not really. We just tend to do select dates a few at a time rather than extended tours. We’ve got so much going on at Compass. So we’re never gone for weeks at a stretch because we have to keep the home fires burning. And, yes, you know, we’ve got a bunch of great bluegrass records, which I know you’ve supported. Probably all of them in fact.

We certainly try to be supportive here at Bluegrass Today. But what you just said begs the question of how you manage to run a record label and be so busy with that, and yet you’re also an artist who gives your full devotion to making music. It’s a little bit astounding how you manage to do both, as you indicated before. You’re pulled in so many different directions. How do you manage it all? 

It’s a challenge. But it’s also great to get to do both things. However, I find that I’m usually not doing both things every day. Some days will be like label days, and other days, we’ll get to do the music days, and that keeps it a little bit more sane. But the other thing that I’ve found is that they do really inform each other. So knowing about the challenges of selling and marketing music right now helps inform the creative process, mostly in a good way. So whether I’m producing a record for somebody else or making my own record, as I’m creating it, I’m thinking about what I hope the outcome will be. And then I’m just trying to make sure that I build in the bits that I need to have that outcome. I do that with production projects, too. If you’re producing a Special Consensus record for example, and want the guys to have a chance for a collaborative recording of the year nomination, well, you’ve got to have a collaborative performance unit.

I think a lot of times artists will be maybe a little bit less strategic. Like, “These are the ten songs that I’m feeling that I’m going to do now,” and then they get to the end, and they realize they haven’t created a great moment for that kind of consideration. That’s just an example. So for me, like knowing all of that, I’m just trying to put the bits into the record that’ll give us the hooks that we need from a marketing point of view. If that makes sense.

Yes, it does. It’s kind of a crossover between the artistic idea and the marketing responsibilities. You’re hearing what needs to be done as a producer, but you’re also hearing what needs to be done creatively. So you’re wearing a lot of hats simultaneously. They’re all stacked up. It’s amazing.

The challenge is knowing how much music there is out there, and knowing that 100,000 tracks a day are being uploaded to Spotify, which is a mind-boggling number. So as an artist, you can start to think, “Well, why do I need to create more to add to that pile that’s already too big as it is?” So that’s the negative side of knowing too much. But at the end of the day, it really boils down to the fact that we create this music, because that’s what we’re driven to do. That’s what started at the beginning for all of us, just this kind of expression that we were driven to create for ourselves. That’s at the core of it. That’s really the most important part.

So I would just like to go back to the beginning, which is your first question of why did I create this all instrumental record? It’s because that’s what I’ve always been driven to do. So that’s what I did, and I hope to give it enough marketing hooks or angles, so that it has chance to have some success and acknowledgement out in the greater world.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.