February 11, 2009

Abigail Washburn’s Chinese-Appalachian-1930s blend

Last week, Colorado College (where I work) welcomed back to campus one of its own, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, featuring ten-time Grammy winner Bela Fleck on the banjo, Casey Driessen on the violin, and the marvelous Ben Sollee on cello.

Washburn has a lovely, lilting, strong voice, and her music is a fascinating blend of bluegrass Appalachian, woven with old threads of 1930s Americana and traditional songs, then globally spiced with Chinese melodies and Chinese language. Abigail and I are roughly the same age, so she was at the College long before I came to work there, but she studied abroad in Shanghai and majored in Asian Studies (both are part of my job now in International Programs).

I felt a certain kinship with the journey of discovery she talked about all throughout her concert, remembering the old woman who taught her a song in China, or what the sky looked like where she lived during her time abroad. It was amazing to see how far life has carried her since those days, but how the seeds of her diverse life experiences have germinated in brightly colored ways through her music.

She is a formidable presence live; each member of the Sparrow Quartet seems smiley-in-love with the music they are creating, appreciatively watching the others play, and holding the audience quite spellbound. Seeing as many rock shows as I do, I was amazed that I didn’t even miss the drums. The range of sounds that their instruments sang out captivated my attention completely.

I brought my little boy to the concert with me (he was my plus-1/2 instead of plus-one, we joked, since he’s only 5) and he sat transfixed. As we walked out through the snowy parking lot, he emphatically told me that he’d never ever heard music like that before, and said, “Mama… it made my brain tickle.”

Pretty excellent description right there.

A Fuller Wine – Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet

BUY: Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (2008)

Side note: Ben Sollee also blew me away; I’m a fan of his thoughtful, cello-based solo album Learning To Bend, and after seeing him play with the Sparrow Quartet, I’m itching to go catch him solo with his own songs, and also hear what else he’s got cooking with Jim James (My Morning Jacket).


  • i was just punched in the face with awesome

    scott b. — February 12, 2009 @ 2:29 am

  • “made my brain tickle” that’s awesome!

    aims — February 14, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  • Love love love. Saw the Sparrow Quartet at Bonnaroo last year, dug the full set so much I then caught the mini-set on the Sonic Stage, and then set out to get the record. A talented bunch, they are.

    Lauren — February 14, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  • npr had something on about her just the other day

    domingo — March 11, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

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