BY JIM FARBER
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
It’s no simple thing to find a fresh angle on a well-aged sound. But Abigail Washburn pulls that trick off with seeming ease in her music.
Washburn, a traditional banjo player and singer, has significant roots in classic Appalachian music. But she shakes up that staid genre by connecting it to music from a most improbable place: China.
Washburn, who grew up in Illinois and now lives in Nashville, first made inroads to the opposite end of the world by studying Mandarin while attending Colorado College. After graduation, she went to work at a consulting firm in Chengdu in southwest China, with plans to become a lawyer. Yet, her parallel background in music made her sensitive to the sounds of the East. So, upon moving back to the States, she began writing songs that proposed a rare cross-cultural dance.
Washburn put together a demo filled with songs in both English and Mandarin and networked it to banjo master Bela Fleck. He liked it so much, he passed it along to friends in the business, which led to a recording contract and several noteworthy albums. (She and Fleck are now married.)
Washburn’s latest CD means to be her least Chinese-influenced. For the first time, she worked with indie-rock stars and producers, including ones associated with My Morning Jacket and the Decemberists. But if Washburn aims for something more hip this time and only sings in English, lilts of Chinese folk and classical music linger. It doesn’t hurt that her support musicians include Wu Fei, with her fine and silky work on the Asian zither-like instrument known as a guzheng. A Mongolian string band also pops up at times to provide the guttural sounds of traditional Eastern “throat singing.”
The songs’ arrangements lean heavily on sparely arranged strings, balancing the formalism of classical music with the flintiness of folk.
For all Washburn’s prowess on the banjo, she stresses vocals this time, even stripping things back to a near a cappella on several tracks. The approach works well, given the stalwart character of her voice. Washburn has a lonesome but determined sound, suggesting a less dry and more pretty, Gillian Welsh.
She mirrors the well-traveled experience of her music in her words. Many songs capture characters on the move. They’re waiting for a train, hitching a ride, immigrating to a new country or seeking some mythical place of succor and release. That last location describes the ultimate destination of the entire CD – somewhere we’ve never been.