Q&A with Abigail Washburn

Clawhammer banjo player and singer joins Bela Fleck for Miami University Middletown concert Saturday

click to enlarge Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck (Photo: Lynne Harty)
Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck (Photo: Lynne Harty)

At the heart of even the darkest of music, it’s love that made it possible. Love of singing or escapism. Love of an instrument or a sound. A flourishing love or a dissipating love. That love is especially present in absolutely everything Abigail Washburn does. It’s a love for the banjo, a love for China and a love of people, especially her husband, Bela Fleck, and (most recently) their adorable new son, Juno.  

Washburn is currently on tour (playing Miami University Middletown Saturday; click here for tickets and more info) and she’s bringing all the things she loves with her, including her husband and baby Juno. Though Washburn and her banjo rarely tour alone, it’s a little different now that she’s touring with Juno.

“Touring is different with the little buddy. Different in a good way,” Washburn says. “In general I'd say life is richer with him in it. When we arrive at a venue, the first thing I do is grab our blanket and go looking for a big tree to lay under and stare up at the leaves and when we walk around the venue for the first time he has such strong and wondrous reactions to the smallest things. Juno helps me stop and appreciate every little detail of the way the world works. He makes it all seem new and magical.”

As adorable as the mother and son relationship seems, when Washburn references her time with Fleck, even more of that love seeps through. They have a relationship with each other and with their music that seems downright precious and magical in comparison to so many other relationships in the music business.

“We met when he was playing at a square dance and I was dancing,” Washburn says. “But I think it's our sense of place in the world and our passion to contribute to music and humanity that really sealed our deal. We love talking and supporting one another and encouraging one another to reach further and further. This is the cornerstone of our connection and the fact that we push each other to explore is what keeps us together.”


There’s still one more kind of love that fuels Washburn, though. Washburn is also whole-heartedly in love with China, too. It’s a passion that roars to life when she performs, especially.

For fans of Bela Fleck or the banjo who have somehow missed the beautiful stylings of Abigail Washburn, that love of China may seem a little odd. The banjo came from Africa and from there became mostly associated with the musical sounds of Appalachia. So … China?

It started when Washburn left the states after college, heading to China and intent on a law degree. Along the way, she picked up Mandarin and found a cool new way to play her banjo. While her future husband was tracing the banjo’s roots in Africa for Throw Down Your Heart, Washburn was bringing the East to Appalachia … or maybe she was bringing Appalachia to the East.

The connection of romanticism and adventure associated with a foreign land never faded for Washburn, even after numerous trips back to China. That passion has only grown with each new adventure in her other motherland. She’s even documented that love in a play she wrote and performed in New York called Post-American Girl.

“I think it is fair to say that it's like a love triangle between 'us' three … The US and China corners of the triangle are symbolically represented by my U.S. and Chinese mothers in the play,” she says. “A strong theme of going far away to find one's self and discover one's path in life is a big part of the struggle and the ultimate bond connecting all sides.”

Post-American Girl had a limited run in New York. However, with the help of the New York Public Theater, Washburn is hoping to develop the performance further. The hope is that eventually, it might actually tour the U.S.

Washburn still loves China and especially loves watching as others experience the country for the first time. In 2011, she set out on the Silk Road Tour with a few musician friends. Together they played music and experienced even more of China together. (You can see recaps of the tour here.)

While you can experience plenty of Washburn’s Chinese influence when listening to her music and seeing her in person, this current tour is powered almost exclusively on the love of her family and the music they can create together.

“I think both Bela and I are really enjoying playing music together,” she says about their family tour. “There's so much potential and uncovered territory in focusing on the soundscapes that can be made with the claw hammer and three-finger banjo styles. The two timbres and rolls together can sound like rippling flowing water or a swinging old ragtime bounce or driving mountain sounds and so on and on. The musical exploration together is exciting for both of us. And then on a personal level it's downright mystical to get to be together all the time and navigate the road and performing as a family.”

For even more awesome music, check out the music Washburn says “floats little Juno’s boat” like Dervish, Phil Cunningham, Paul Brady, Afel Bolcum, Oumou Sangare and Sam Amidon. She says he also likes a little bit of Bon Iver and Bonnie Raitt, too.

But, Washburn says, “So far I think banjo is his favorite!”


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