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Alison Brown wants to shed more light on banjo's history, diversity

Neil Culberson

Musician Alison Brown says that as a banjo player, she's excited about the future of the instrument, especially in the hands of women and people of color.

Alison Brown performs at Belle Plaine's Bartlett Arboretum on Sunday, May 19.

The singer, songwriter and banjo innovator is based in Nashville, where she recorded her 2023 album "On Banjo." It's the latest in a line of acclaimed outings from Brown and was released on the Compass label, which she and husband/bassist Garry West co-founded in the 1990s.

The LP finds her teaming up with some longtime friends and some more recent acquaintances, ranging from Anat Cohen to Steve Martin to Kronos Quartet. The record also reunites her with childhood musical partner Stuart Duncan, whose path on fiddle parallels Brown's own on banjo.

Brown recently spoke with KMUW about the origins of "On Banjo," her bonds with the performers who joined her on the recording, and her feelings about disenfranchised voices in banjo music in the present day.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your vision for "On Banjo"?

I'm always trying to explore the lyrical side of the banjo and also the different places you can take Scruggs-rooted, five-string banjo. That's always part of the plot. But on this one, I was challenging myself to write with specific collaborators in mind. That was the genesis for the collaborations with Anat Cohen, Sharon Isbin and Steve Martin, Kronos Quartet, Sierra Hull and Stuart Duncan. I may be leaving somebody out, but that was really the thrust of the record. My previous record was called "Song of the Banjo" and included a lot of cover tunes, so this record is all original music basically.

I love the piece "Choro 'Nuff" with Anat Cohen. Did you know Anat before the collaboration?

I've admired her music for many, many years and during the pandemic, I really did a deep dive into the choro music that she's done, checking out all her YouTube videos. We have still ... never met in person, believe it or not. I think we might have a chance to meet [right before I come to Kansas]. She's coming to Nashville. We've only just collaborated electronically.

"Porches" with Kronos Quartet is another inspired choice. They have a reputation for being avant-garde and 20th-century music. I think this is such a beautiful blend of the two of you.

Thank you for saying that. We met at the FreshGrass Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts, before the pandemic. They were working on a Pete Seeger project, so I knew that they were banjo-friendly or at least banjo-adjacent. But I have had people say that this is the most melodic thing they've ever heard Kronos do! [Laughs.] But they are intrepid musical explorers, and it was really a thrill getting to collaborate with them.

I wanted to touch on "Sun and Water" (Here Comes the Sun/Waters of March). What inspired that piece?

That was another one that grew out of pandemic times. I was hearing a lot of reports, as we all were, coming out of New York City about hospitals playing "Here Comes the Sun" as they were discharging recovering COVID patients. That put the song in my ear, and, at the same time, I finally had [a chance] to sit down at home with my guitar and work through Jobim guitar chord books. I had the two things going at the same time and thought, "Wow, there's a certain melodic kinship between ("Here Comes the Sun" and Jobim's "Waters of March"). Those are two of my favorite melodies. It happened organically, and when I brought it to the band, they were kind of like, "Yeah, I don't know about that." But everybody agreed at the end that it really worked well.

You mentioned Steve Martin earlier, and I guess that if I played banjo and were making an album and were looking for collaborators, Steve Martin would be right near the top of the list of people I'd call.

[Laughs.] He's an amazing person to collaborate with. That was maybe one of the silver linings of the pandemic. The tune that we recorded is called "Foggy Morning Breaking," which takes its name from a lyric in a John Hartford tune. Steve and I both have a history with John. Steve wrote with him on "The Smothers Brothers Show," so he goes way back with John.

I was sitting around one day during the pandemic, and I came up with an A section for double c tuning, which is a clawhammer tuning that I know Steve really likes. I texted it to him and asked if he wanted to write a B [section], and he sent me a perfect B section back in a day. Then we put the song out, and it did really well on bluegrass radio, which surprised me and delighted Steve. He was so excited about having a number one song on bluegrass radio that he sent me lyrics to a song about having a number one song on bluegrass radio. I wrote the music for that, and it became "Bluegrass Radio," the new single that we have. Since then, we've been collaborating on a bunch of tunes. I think we're both really drawn to the lyrical side of the banjo, so collaborating has just been such a joy and so easy. Just very natural.

You and Stuart Duncan, who appears on "Tall Hog at the Trough," have known each other a long time and have deep musical ties.

I can't believe how long I've known Stuart. Fifty years, I guess. It's such a gift to have a relationship from such a young age. We played together a lot in our teens. We both grew up in Southern California; we had different bands together. His parents had a bedroom in their house for me. His dad would drive us around to festivals in Southern California. One summer, he took us back East to all the festivals. What a gift to grow up with somebody who's covered as much musical territory as Stuart has. He's undisputedly probably the finest fiddle player that's ever lived. I just can't say enough great things about his music.

But he's been amazing since the first time I saw him when he was 10 years old at a San Diego Bluegrass Club meeting at Shakey's Pizza Palace. He's been amazing ever since. It was great to get to do a tune together on my record. We were both disciples of Byron Berline and John Hickman. Byron and John were the banjo and fiddle guys in Southern California when we were growing up. I wanted to pay tribute to them with a song on this record because they both passed away. So that's how Stuart and I came to record "Tall Hog at the Trough."

I'm guessing that in the time you've known each other, you've seen other fine musicians who you knew early on who moved on to different careers, whether in engineering or architecture. Is it inspiring to see fellow musicians who have been in it for the long haul?

In Stuart's case, there was no doubt that this was his calling. He's truly always been so good. Even as a teenager, he could pick up any instrument and play any tune. It didn't seem to come from hours of woodshedding. It was just inside of him. There was really no question that Stuart was going to be a player. It is really amazing to get to watch somebody's evolution over such a long period of time and see how many amazing things he's done. He's always my first call for fiddle. In fact, he plays fiddle on the new track with Steve.

Do you feel like you've become a banjo historian?

I'm fascinated by the story of the banjo because, to me, there's nothing that better represents everything about America than the five-string banjo, which is essentially like a drum with a neck attached. It says African influence; it says European influence just in its construction. Obviously, it came to these shores in the memories of the enslaved folks from West Africa. Then, from the turn of the 1800s to the turn of the 1900s, it went from essentially being a Black plantation instrument to becoming a white, middle-class or upper-middle-class ladies' parlor instrument. It underwent this incredible transformation. All that happened before Earl Scruggs picked up a banjo. The history is so deep, and the story just parallels the story of our country in interesting ways. It's hard not to want to be a historian of the instrument.

It's a far more diverse instrument than people realize. We can hear it in orchestral settings, jazz, avant garde music.

That's true. It's not like taking a theremin and putting it in genres that it was never a part of. It's taking an instrument that has a history with jazz, the banjo is there at the birth of jazz, and the repertoire that people were playing in the banjo orchestras at the end of the 1800s was a classic repertoire. In a way, it's taken Scruggs-rooted technique back into some genres where it has previously been. I don't know if it's ever been in choro. That might have been a first with Anat.

Right now is also an interesting time for the banjo and its relationship to Black music. Beyoncé's "Texas Hold 'Em," of course, features Rhiannon Giddens who has been celebrating that relationship for a long time. I guess it's a kind of reclamation.

I love seeing that. I feel like there are two really disenfranchised voices [with the instrument]. One of them is the Black voice with the banjo and the other is the female voice. There's an amazing set of paintings from the end of the 1800s both called "The Banjo Lesson." One is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was the first African American artist of international repute; it's a Black man holding a Black child and they're playing the banjo. Then, Mary Cassatt has one with the same title. It's a white woman and her daughter or a young white girl playing the banjo together. To me, that says a lot about what somehow got lost in the recent history of the instrument. I love seeing the Black voices reclaiming the instrument, and I love seeing more women coming on board and playing the banjo, too.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.