Face to Face at the debut Earl Scruggs Music Festival: a conversation with Alison Brown

Alison Brown is that rare combination — both an artist and entrepreneur whose success at the helm of her label, Compass Records alongside her husband, co-owner and bandmate Garry West, has made it one of the leading independent labels encompassing the realms of folk, bluegrass, Celtic, jazz, and acoustic music. That’s an impressive accomplishment, especially considering the success the company has seen over the course of the 28 years since it was first founded in 1995. And while business acumen is one thing, the ability to continue to release exceptional music of her own makes her own artistic accomplishments all the more impressive. 

Bluegrass Today caught up with Ms. Brown prior to her set at the first annual Earl Scruggs Music Festival that took place over the Labor Day weekend, and the conversation offered an ideal opportunity not only to catch up on the latest news from the label, but also to reflect on a stellar career that shows no signs of slowing down.

BLUEGRASS TODAY: You’ve been quite busy as always lately, and it appears you’ve added some talented newcomers to the Compass roster.

ALISON BROWN: That’s true. Over the summer we’ve had some great releases, including a new record from Nicki Bluhm called Avondale Drive, which has done really well on the Americana charts. She, of course, is a great singer. Really great. Also, Chastity Brown, who was on the Red House imprint, has a great record called Sing To the Walls. And then, we just put out Frank Solivan’s new record, which is called Hold On. It’s some high octane bluegrass. So that’s super fun. And in August, we did a release from the Brother Brothers called Cover To Cover. I call that my feel good record of the summer. I love that record. And I was honored that they asked me to play on a couple tracks. Their sound is for anyone who likes Everly Brothers.

Compass is really a quality brand, and rightfully repeated as such. 

It warms my heart really and truly. I can’t think of another industry that’s changed more in the last 25 years. The digital revolution completely upended the music industry, and so it’s a day to day challenge trying to reinvent our methods in order to keep pace with the changes that are happening in the market. So to hear you say that, I’m really honored.

Well, thank you for continuing to produce physical product. There are plenty of us who appreciate that. 

I appreciate that too. Not only that, but we’re all getting sucked back into vinyl. Who would have thought all those all those artists who insisted on organic packaging for their CDs are now putting their records out on vinyl? I’m like, excuse me, it’s like this petroleum product that’s horribly uneconomic, environmentally inefficient and terrible. But, yes, we definitely exist in the physical space, as well as in the digital space.

Your label is known for carrying on a tradition of sorts with iconic artists, while also bringing out new artists and exposing them to the world as well, You’re kind of able to do both, which is pretty fantastic.

I appreciate you saying that. That’s really why we started the label. We felt like when we’re out here being musicians, and we hear some great artists, it would be great to have a hand in bringing their music to a larger audience. So that was the genesis of it. And of course, all the rules of the game have changed tremendously since we started 27 years ago.

You’re in such a unique position of being an artist and an entrepreneur, a situation which doesn’t always work for a lot of people. Do you find that it divides your energies in a certain way?

Yeah, absolutely. When artists say they want to do a DIY thing. I’m like, are you sure? Because it really is a total right brain, left brain kind of thing. The time commitment and managing effort — even if you decide to hire a bunch of indie folks to work your record — is a huge effort, and you’re relying on these people to understand the nuance of a market that’s ever-changing. That’s a big ask, especially for an independent contractor that you just bring on to work your project for six weeks. It’s really hard. That’s probably why it’s taken me seven years to get another record out of my own.

I was gonna ask you, when are we gonna have a new record from you?

Probably in the first quarter of next year. It’s all done and it’s gonna be called On Banjo, because it’s all banjo instrumentals. It’s kind of a mixed bag. There are about four or five tracks with the band, and then we have some special collaborations. Steve Martin and I wrote a tune for clawhammer banjo, and we recorded a song called Foggy Morning Breaking. And there’s a tune with a couple of Brazilian guys that was super cool, super fun. And I did a piece with Kronos String Quartet. String Quartet and banjo sounds like a bad joke, but hopefully people don’t perceive it that way.

It sounds very eclectic, which again, kind of reflects who you are. You’ve never been afraid to break some boundaries. You seem to follow your own instincts and your own muse.

When you look at all the challenges in the music industry, I think you just have to remember why we all got into this in the first place. For me, it was just the joy of playing banjo. This is the kind of the music that I feel moved to make right now. And hopefully, you can attract an audience to it. That’s kind of the difference between the independent label approach and the major label approach. Sometimes, the major label approach is trying to latch on to whatever the music du jour is or whatever happens to be the fashion of the day. And like fashion, it kind of comes and goes. But our music is lifestyle music.

Bluegrass music is, of course, a constant that goes back a century or more with its origins. Why do you think that bluegrass has been able to sustain such popularity through the decades?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s because it’s great music. It called to me from across the demographic boundaries. When I was a kid growing up in Connecticut, I loved the sound of Earl Scrugg’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I told myself I have to be able to figure out how to do that. And then you get drawn into the community around this music, which is just a really generous and warm community that I’ve always felt very proud to be a part of.

It’s a real populist kind of culture, almost like the Grateful Dead, where fans would flock to see their shows. It’s the same way now at these festivals. It draws such a loyal crowd.

That’s true. As I started to tour, it struck me that one of the differences between bluegrass audiences and the pop concerts is that with that music, there needs to be a mystique about the artist, and some separation between the artists and the fans. But in our music, it’s about direct artist to fan engagement. When I was first learning to play, I remember going up to Jerry Douglas and asking him a question. I was like, I can really ask him something, he’s really a person who will talk to me, and I still kind of have that feeling when I’m able to talk to a hero or someone like Earl Scruggs. I could really go talk to Earl and he really would tell me what kind of thumb pick he used. And that’s huge. But I think maybe another reason is that bluegrass music was born out of innovation. When Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt got together, they were creating a new thing. They were taking bits of old music to create a new kind of music. And I think that spirit of innovation is part of what keeps bluegrass music invigorated and alive, and reaching across the borders and all that kind of stuff. It attracts new fans from across the world.

I do a column for Bluegrass Today called Bluegrass Beyond Borders, and it focuses on bands from all over the world. It’s an amazing worldwide phenomenon in that regard.

I love it. I mean, there may not be, you know, tons and tons of bluegrass fans around the world, but I think I’ve read that bluegrass music associations across the world have around 150,000 followers all together. That’s not nothing.

No, it’s not not at all. And most of these bands tell me, that once the audiences hear the music, they’re hooked. That’s all it takes.

Yeah, it’s true. I’ve been to the banjo jamboree in the Czech Republic. It’s the oldest running bluegrass festival in Europe. That’s pretty interesting, because bluegrass is kind of the embodiment of conservative values. The Czech people embraced bluegrass music as a form of protest against the communist government. So that’s a weird twist. All of a sudden, it’s a revolutionary music.

So how did you find out about this particular festival? Who or what enticed you to come and play here? There are a lot of festivals to choose from, as you know,

It’s all about Earl Scruggs. If I hadn’t heard Earl Scruggs and his music and started playing the banjo. I don’t know. I would probably be like a doctor or something. It would be a completely different life.

Did you ever have a chance to meet Earl Scruggs?

I met him a few times. He was very generous, a very kind of understated guy, and his sons were lovely too, especially Gary Scruggs. It was so sad to lose him last year. He was also very soft spoken, but kind of a real supporter of mine. In fact, I think he was the one who told the Country Music Hall of Fame that I should be the one to get to play Earl’s Granada banjo on that big tribute show. They opened the vaults and had different musicians play his instruments. So I got to play Earl’s Granada, which had been in the Earl Scruggs museum since it was donated several years ago. It’s kind of like you show up and they take these things out of the case with gloves on and give it to you. The strings hadn’t been changed in ten years, but it was an amazing, auspicious occasion. I definitely feel like Gary Scruggs had a hand in all that. So I appreciate it.

That brings up a very specific question. How do you keep a grasp on tradition and these age-old precepts, but at the same time, establish your own unique, individual niche and tread that line between past and future?

For me, it’s just come about as a result of writing my own tunes. And when I started trying to do that, I found that the hardest thing to do was to write a traditional bluegrass tune and make it sound distinctive. It was much easier and much more natural for my stuff to come out and go in other directions. And then it was a matter of trying to figure out what it was that I was writing and how to represent it musically, which ended up doing it with a band that had like a jazz rhythm section. But it’s not a jazz band. I was playing basically traditional three finger rooted style, but also playing so that these other grooves could be added as well. That’s how it happened for me. I don’t know, it’s just kind of organically that way.

It helps the the traditions move forward into the future, and that’s what you have to do. 

You can’t just do that with everything, but the music needs to continue to be relevant and appealing to people, and so you need to keep the tradition alive. It’s deep rooted and so good. Traditional bluegrass music is still my first love. I love listening to traditional bluegrass that’s well-played. I’m not worried about it going away. There are people that get nervous when there are artists on the fringe or diluting the music, and they worry about what’s going to happen to the traditional core. But I have no concerns at all. There are plenty of people that are honoring the tradition and keeping that flame alive and it’s such a strong sound that I don’t think anything’s going to happen to it. Only good things can happen by expanding the template and bringing new people to the music.

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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.