Friday, November 18, 2011


Happy Banjo Friday, folks!  Things are all a-bustle here around Robert Frost’s Banjo Central, & I have a busy day ahead of me—so apologies in advance in comments aren’t moderated in a timely fashion!  More news in the near future, tho I can tell you that today’s specific bustle has to do with more mundane matters than apartments.

Fortunately, I do have another entry in this month’s series on the banjo in unusual musical contexts that I think you’ll enjoy a lot!  This features banjoist/composer/singer Abigail Washburn & the other three members of the Sparrow Quartet: Béla Fleck (also on banjo, of course), Casey Driessen (violin), & Ben Sollee (cello).  The Sparrow Quartet released one album, a self-titled collection, in 2008 on the Nettwerk label. 

Since last week’s post featured Fleck’s work, today I want to focus on Abigail Washburn.  While Washburn is not a virtuosic player in the sense that Fleck is, she is a musical force to be reckoned with: a talented composer & someone who has been able in her songwriting & arranging to bring together very disparate elements into an always intriguing sound.  & she is a very good banjoist at that.  While she is usually thought of as a clawhammer style player (& that is the style she employs in her part on today’s selection, “Captain”), she also plays fingerstyle—not really the 2-finger Scruggs style that Fleck & Bill Keith use as a starting point, but something a bit more like guitar fingerstyle playing. 

Washburn first developed an interest in the banjo when living in China during the 1990s—she had a family connection to that country & was considering becoming a lawyer & practicing law there.  The banjo apparently served as a bridge for her between the cultures, but despite exploring the banjo—& also some gigging experience in the past as a back-up singer—she didn’t pursue music professionally until later when she was working as an activist in Vermont.

Washburn has brought the banjo into any number of unusual music contexts—the Sparrow Quartet explored Chinese melodies, avant-garde sounds & a fascinating combination of improvisation & “string quartet” settings to create a really singular kind of music.  Washburn also spent several years with the old-time band Uncle Earl, & has since gone on to continue her innovation by heading up a recording project that produced City of Refuge on the New Rounder label.  Here continues her innovative sound, mixing elements of old-time music, World music, pop & much more to create a unique singer-songwriter song: a singer-songwriter not wielding a 6-string, but playing clawhammer banjo, with various backing configurations. 

Hope you enjoy this exciting performer & the formidable Sparrow Quartet!


  1. Very interesting; I like it. In a way it almost reminds me of Mark O'Connor's cross-genre stuff, only from a banjo perspective rather than a fiddle one.

  2. Hi Roy: So glad you liked it! Yes, that's an interesting comparison, & apt I think. Thanks!

  3. I've gotta be honest and say the instrumentation is too sophisticated or something for me. However, I know limits must be tested, and everyone's skill is clear. And her voice is terrific--nicely haunting for that song.

  4. Hi Banjo52: I completely respect that--Sparrow Quartet is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Thanks as always for stopping by, giving a listen & taking the time to comment!

  5. The song in the video is absolutely lovely. I had never heard of Abigail or the Sparrow Quartet. Over the past couple days I have listened to "Captain" several times. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hi Joyce: I'm so pleased that you like it so well! I do find the music quite intriguing myself. Thanks!


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