When a craftsman pauses to reflect, students of all skill levels benefit from the lesson. Alison Brown’s latest album, On Banjo, released May 5 on Compass Records and is a masterclass; it’s also a study on where the instrument has been and where it’s going.
Brown is a Compass co-founder and a GRAMMY Award-winning artist and producer. A self-described “lifer” in the bluegrass community and an IBMA “First Lady of Bluegrass,” she eagerly explores what the five-stringed instrument can do outside typical genre parameters. The new record is packed with star-studded duets with comedian Steve Martin, mandolin player and fellow First Lady of Bluegrass Sierra Hull, and fiddle legend Stuart Duncan.
The result is a varied, rich track list we couldn’t wait to ask Brown about.
BGS: Let’s walk through some of the tracks and collaborations on On Banjo. What kind of music inspired the duet with Anat Cohen?
AB: Anat Cohen is a clarinetist; she was born in Israel and lives in New York, but she’s well-known in jazz circles for Brazilian choro. I actually watched lots of videos of Anat on YouTube.
I reached out. I said “I know we don’t know each other, but would you consider doing this?”
What’s it like working with a famous comedian like Steve Martin in a musical context?
I’ve had the good fortune to go out and do some shows with him and Martin Short. There’s inevitably some time to jam in the dressing room, so it’s fun to play with Steve in that context, too.
Steve’s a great banjo player with a really beautiful touch and a delicate, sweet tone. He loves playing in double C tuning. Banjo players usually tune to a G, but you can drop the fourth string to a C and tune the second [string] up to a C. It’s an old tuning that clawhammer guys use a lot.
The way “Foggy Mountain Breaking,” came about is I wrote the A section. It was during the pandemic. I asked Steve, “Do you wanna write a B part?” He sent me a perfect B section 24 hours later. We figured out a bridge together. It’s named after a lyric in a John Hartford song and is obviously a riff on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
How does it feel to work with younger bluegrass talents like Sierra Hull? Is it gratifying to have a feminine duo on that track?
I wrote that tune hoping Sierra would be up for learning and recording it with me. I’m a huge fan of her mandolin playing; she’s another one with such a delicate touch. Her fingers just really dance over the fingerboard.
It required her to play every fret on the first string of the mandolin and she did it flawlessly. She said she’d never had a chance to work on such complicated music with another woman. So it’s a really special thing. It’s always a delight to play with Sierra, but to do a duet with her was like chocolate and more chocolate.
How do you balance two strong, independent main instruments like banjo and fiddle together, such as with Stuart Duncan?
Banjo and fiddle are just so complementary. They say a banjo and fiddle make a band, and they do.
I’ve known Stuart since he was 11 and I was 12. We go way back. And on this tune I want to give a tip of the hat to Byron Berline and John Hickman. Growing up in Southern California when we did in the ’70s, those two were the guys that everybody worshiped at the feet of. I wanted to try and capture some of that spirit, and I wanted to do it with Stuart.
Who is this album for, and what do you hope listeners take away from it?
That’s the existential question of the banjo player. And it is a bit of a challenge when you take the five-string banjo and go somewhere else with it. Earl Scruggs perpetuated a style and brought it to the masses that was just so electric. Most people think that’s all the banjo does and they don’t worry about its history before that. There’s a lot of voices inside the instrument; the bluegrass one has become the loudest one most recently.
It’s so interesting because at the beginning of the 1800s the banjo was found on plantations. Then white people appropriated that music in minstrel shows, performing in blackface. It’s deep in terms of what it says about our history and America’s original sin.
It went from being a Black instrument to being a white lady’s instrument. The Black voice of the instrument and the female voice of the instrument were both disenfranchised. There are gorgeous old photos of women in the 1890s holding banjos, and there were female banjo orchestras. I’m excited to see that re-emerging.
You started Compass Records with Garry West almost three decades ago. What’s on the horizon, and what are your goals?
All the labels were run by business people, not musicians. We said, “Why can’t musicians run a label for other artists?”
The other part is really wanting to build a label that can have a cultural impact and Garry and I are both invested in roots music. I’ve been a member of the bluegrass community since about 10 years old. I’m a lifer. The whole economy of the record business has been turned upside down and stirred and shaken eight times. We want to make sure this music not only survives but thrives into the future.
You mentioned growing up in SoCal. How is bluegrass there different from Appalachia?
There would be Eagles’ songs in set lists. It was wide open. When I first came east with Stuart and his dad, we drove around and did the festivals in 1978 or so, but it was rooted in the first generation bands’ repertoire.
On that trip we entered a band contest in Oklahoma and we played something we learned from a Richard Green record. It was a funky fiddle thing in E. I remember somebody coming up afterwards and saying “We don’t appreciate you knocking the music.”
What did you learn while making On Banjo?
The deep dive to find new melodies, and that process of discovery of the instrument, is the process of self-discovery. You get to the end and it teaches you something new about yourself.
Photo Credit: Russ Harrington