She also just happens to be a former investment banker, spent three years in Union Station with crossover superstar Allison Krauss, holds degrees in history and literature, is a devoted mother and founded one of today’s most successful and diverse music labels, Compass Records, along with husband/bassist Garry West. At this point, it’s tempting to replace “well rounded” with “super-humanly driven.”
In a recent phone interview, I had the opportunity to pick Brown’s brain about how she’s gotten where she is, what’s coming next, and where “bluegrass,” “newgrass” and the whole ball of wax might be headed.
“Cutting an album with the quartet is a little like blazing a path through a forest,” said Brown in comparing one of her more forward-thinking, jazz tinged albums (Out Of The Blue) to one of her personal favorites, the traditionally-oriented Fair Weather. “But a bluegrass album has you working within more defined parameters.”
Indeed, sections of Out Of The Blue readily call to mind Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, heightened by the smart ensemble passages and tasteful but fiery interplay between Brown and longtime collaborator John R. Burr on piano.
“This music wouldn’t have grown the way it has without the element he brings to the band,” Brown says of Burr, who will join her onstage with bassist West, fiddler/mandolinist Joe Craven and drummer David Hyer Sept. 8 at Eaglenest Entertainment in Maggie Valley.
But straight bluegrass is still near and dear to Brown’s heart.
“Flatt and Scruggs made me want to play in the first place,” she said, adding her childhood guitar instructor John Hickman and fiddler Stuart Duncan to her list of influences, both of whom went on to become her earliest band mates.
Growing up in southern California exposed Brown to the more modern interpretations of bluegrass by the likes of Newgrass Revival, and she cites David Grisman’s 1976 recording Kaleidoscope as a longtime favorite. The inventive and lyrical playing of jazz icon Joe Pass had an impact as well, and Brown’s choice to use the electric, nylon string banjo for a good deal of Out Of The Blue was as much out of love for the tone and phrasing of jazz guitar as a need to fit in to contemporary radio at the time.
“Though newgrass was incredibly popular in the late 90’s, most stations still wouldn’t play anything on ‘smooth jazz’ radio that sounded remotely like a banjo, so I had to find a way to get my voice in there,” Brown said.
A multi-instrumentalist, fluent on guitar and Dobro in addition to banjo myself, I asked what kind of influence these other instruments have on her approach to banjo. Surprisingly, she finds it “easier to find melodies on the guitar,” which are then adapted to banjo through her deft use of cascading open strings and propulsive picking. And speaking of various influences melding into something new, what’s her take on the evolution of bluegrass over the length of her career in the business?
“I definitely see the bluegrass center leaning more to the right,” she stated in regard to the prevalence of “traditionalist” bands like Steep Canyon Rangers and Mountain Heart, who still combine styles but stay closest to the Appalachian heart and soul of the music.
As a recording artist, Brown has experienced the way this music was forced out of its boundaries in the hands of contemporaries like Bela Fleck and through her own efforts, only to find it’s way back to the source. This is readily apparent on her most recent effort, Stolen Moments, which finds Brown joined by Sam Bush, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls and Mike Marshall on several cuts. Songs like “The Sound Of Summer Running,” the breathtaking “Musette For A Palindrome” and “The Magnificent Seven” find her returning to the acoustic banjo’s warm, rustic voice, and her crafty blend of bluegrass, Latin, Celtic and classical never sounded more sure-footed and confident.
So what’s Brown watching and listening to these days?
“Lots of Baby Einstein DVD’s! Especially the ‘Baby Mozart’ and ‘Baby Bach’ packages,” she said.
Parenthood presents its fare share of challenges and responsibilities, but among it all she has plans to record a new album with the quintet, possibly a Christmas EP. She also hopes to begin a symphonic project soon, which she says is likely influenced by all that “Baby Mozart” she and her daughter have been watching.
Surprisingly, Brown was apprehensive when she first toured through North Carolina years ago, fearing that audiences living in the epicenter of all that is bluegrass might not be as accepting of her genre bending style as those on the west coast. Thankfully, it wasn’t the case.
“North Carolina has been wonderfully receptive and open minded to modern bluegrass,” she said.
It’s tough to ask for more than the chance to see a musician and band as genuinely talented as the Alison Brown Quartet doing what they do in a live format. And after experiencing Brown’s warmth, enthusiasm and humor during this interview, there’s no way I’m going to miss this show, either.