You may know Abigail Washburn as one of the best claw hammer banjoists playing today, but did you know the folk music veteran speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese? In fact, the artist has held a longtime fascination with East Asia, and she’s continued to nurture that fascination throughout her career.
After her early upbringing in Washington D.C. and Minnesota, Washburn landed at Colorado College where she became the school’s first East Asian Studies major, an experience that would cement her interest with the land and people of China. She spent time in China perfecting her Mandarin before recording her first record, Song of the Traveling Daughter, in Nashville. Needless to say, her 2005 debut was heavily influenced by her travels, effortlessly blending Chinese instrumentation and lyrics with Appalachian folk music.
Although she was quickly absorbed into the folk and bluegrass scene, she never lost her passion for East Asia. Her quartet with husband and banjoist Béla Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee, and fiddler Casey Driessen, The Sparrow Quartet, toured Tibet in 2006 at the request of the Chinese government—a first for an American band! The group also performed in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics and went on to record a full-length album, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet.
One of Washburn’s personal joys is to “build bridges between hearts and minds through the beauty of music,” as she recently told Nashville Public Radio. To that effect, she’s spent a large portion of her career forging connections with her music and giving back to local communities in China and at home in America.
She first released an EP titled Afterquake which benefited Sichuan Quake Relief in China after their devastating earthquake. She later embarked on a tour of musical collaboration across China, building partnerships with other musicians and local people along the way. She brought these experiences to her TED Talk, “Building U.S.-China Relations…by Banjo,” viewed nearly 1 million times.
Not slowing down with her activism, Washburn and Fleck regularly donate proceeds from their tours to local non-profits, some of the latest beneficiaries being land conservation and performing arts organizations in America.
Washburn is currently on a national tour with Fleck promoting their latest effort, Echo in the Valley (Rounder Records), featuring songs inspired by Appalachia.
It’s no underestimation to say that Washburn has forged a path truly her own. She’s just bringing the rest of us along her cross-cultural musical journey, connecting us all as humans, along the way.
She performs live with Béla Fleck on Thursday, November 16, at Sanders Theatre. Reserve your seats today!