It has been two years since this clawhammer banjo-playing Appalachian folk singer released her debut album Song Of The Traveling Daughter, which transformed her from a budding Sino-American lawyer in China to an all-American bluegrass star with an award-winning band. It all started when Washburn came to the attention of 10-time Grammy Award winner and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck after coming in as second place runner-up at a songwriting contest held at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. He agreed to produce Song Of The Traveling Daughter and, later, recruited Kentucky cellist Ben Sollee and Grammy-nominated fiddle player Casey Driessen for Washburn’s 2005 Sparrow Quartet EP, from which the band took their name. With Fleck’s unique banjo style, Sollee’s innovation on the cello and Driessen’s country pedigree, a whole new depth of talent is evident on the Quartet’s self-titled release.
The album opens with the sleek ‘Overture’, a clever instrumental medley of the songs to come, simply dazzling in its seamless, well polished transitions and amazing musicianship, complete with Washburn’s remarkable yodel. Moving straight into ‘A Fuller Wine’, the familiar banjo finger-picking and rapid Appalachian rhythms set the scene for Washburn’s strong and rootsy vocals, but it soon establishes a more unsettling ambience: the pace of the rhythm, the sweeping, moody cello and dashes of fiddle are intricately combined, but never outplay the singer’s purposeful vocals. The progression from Song Of The Traveling Daughter is remarkable and Washburn clearly revels in the finer details of these more evocative compositions.
‘Strange Things’ is another startling example of the Quartet’s skills. Starting out simply with just voice and banjo, it is gradually reinforced by echo-like strings that suddenly creep in to colour the song and vanish just as quickly, before ultimately evolving into a strong, train-like rhythm that momentarily breaks to allow Washburn’s haunted vocal some freedom. Increasingly urgent playing leads to a brilliant instrumental climax with Washburn’s voice shimmering with unusual theatricality as she huskily instructs that we “do as my guy commands”. And so on, with one immaculately played song after another.
Anyone familiar with Washburn’s debut will remember her impressively dabbling with singing in Mandarin, and she takes this one step further for this latest album. Rather than simply repeat the trick, she has made a conscious attempt to fuse Americana with traditional Chinese folk songs. She still deals with them separately, such as on ‘Taiyang Chulai’, ‘A Kazakh Melody’ and the 1938 hit ‘Banjo Pickin’ Girl’, but expertly creates a whole new sound when she merges the two together on ‘Kangding Qingge / Old Timey Dance Party’. Inspired by the Quartet’s official invitation from Tibet to tour the region – making them the first American band ever to do so – and her ongoing fascination with Chinese language and culture, Washburn effortlessly blends recognisably Chinese melodies with energetic Appalachian tempos. As she puts it, “It was an intimate exploration of crossing global and cultural lines within myself. As more and more people engage in this struggle for a new direction for the human spirit, we’ll recognise that we’re morphing into a global species.”
Although the crisp, clean production takes away some of the invigorating rawness of roots music, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet is a captivating and highly recommended listen. Washburn and co. naturally combine fantastic musicianship with refreshing enthusiasm, and have produced an admirable and intricate piece of work that will hopefully elevate them beyond the Americana niche.
[Nettwerk; May 19, 2008]