When one thinks of bluegrass and old-time mountain music, the mountain range that typically comes to mind is the Appalachians. Abigail Washburn, though, doesn’t care much to stay planted in Bluegrass’s accepted Olympia. Instead, she creates a musical Pangaea, merging the Appalachians with the Qinling or Wudang Mountains of China.
Washburn, an experienced claw-hammer banjo player schooled in the classical style of bluegrass, has effortlessly morphed her musical training with another interest: the language and culture of China. A visit as a freshman in college introduced Washburn to a world full of challenges, stories and uncovered beauty. Fascinated, she devoted her time to learning about Chinese culture and the Mandarin language. A newbie to bluegrass at the time, she decided ‘for kicks’ to translate a Gillian Welch song into Mandarin. A recording fell into the right hands, and the rest fell into place. With bandmates Béla Fleck (who also produced her new album), Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen, Abigail and her Sparrow Quartet combine resonant Americana tones with tales told in Mandarin and English to form a baffling study of what you might call ‘globalization.’
Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet is a lively showcase of each musician’s incomparable talent, as well as Washburn’s great voice, as engaging in her natural alto as in her falsetto soprano. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet is definitively atypical – a promise, perhaps, not only of the vitality of American musical history, but of a new chapter in a dynamic book of stories told in many languages across the globe.