by Whit Hill
Abigail Washburn is one of the G'Earls a member of the all-girl string band Uncle Earl (which has its roots here in Ann Arbor but now tours the country and wins all manner of tasty awards). One of the strengths of Uncle Earl is that all the performers have other projects, other interests, and singular talents and quirks that keep the band fresh as a Michigan apple in October.
Washburn, for example, a stellar singer and banjo player, often sings old bluegrass songs in Chinese. "During my freshman year at Colorado College," she says on her website, "I joined a summer program trip to China. It had a profound effect on me. I discovered a Chinese culture that was so deep and ancient, it changed my perspective on America." She came home, learned to play the banjo, and steeped herself in American roots music, starting with "Shady Grove."
As her renown as a musician grew, so did her love of Chinese culture. With her own band, the Sparrow Quartet (Casey Driessen on fiddle, the world-renowned Bela Fleck on banjo, and Ben Sollee on cello), Washburn toured China in 2004 and again the following year. Later this month, the quartet embarks on the first-ever United States-sponsored cultural mission to Tibet and several cities along China's eastern seaboard, where it will bring American roots music to one of the world's most ancient civilizations all courtesy of a grant from the U.S. State Department.
I've not heard Washburn play, apart from her work with Uncle Earl, so her brand-new five-song EP was a chance to sample what Ann Arbor will hear when she comes to the Ark on Tuesday, October 3. "Fall on My Knees" starts with delicate, arpeggiating banjo, adds Washburn's elegant voice, and then layers in cello in a stunning, almost symphonic arrangement that plummets in an instant to one plunking little note before bursting forth anew. Who could ever tell this is an old, old song, sung by some lady on her porch? It's bracingly new. And Washburn's take on "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" was inspired by an old recording by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It starts somberly, and Washburn shouts and trills and holds tight onto each pure vowel as if her life depended on it before tripping into the mirror-image of religious fervor: mischief, mirth, delight.
[Review published October 2006]
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