a sparrow in china

abgail washburn

Of the many discoveries Abigail Washburn  hoped to make when she first ventured to China, forging a career in music was not one.

But after a decade-long immersion in the country’s culture and language (she speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese), Washburn became not only infatuated with the sounds of another land. She discovered a musical kinship that ignited roots music exploration here at home.

“It’s funny, really,” Washburn said. “I mean, why does one go to a foreign land to live and learn?  It’s different for everybody. For me, I had a really clear career path. I thought I was going to do something with Sino-American legal issues. I wanted to be an expert in some aspect of comparative law between the two cultures.”

She was going to do what? Where in the world – or at least in two continents – did Washburn decide to sack the law, pick up a banjo and become not only a mainstay member of an acclaimed bluegrass band (the all-female Uncle Earl) but the leader of a daring, multi-cultural ensemble packed with serious heavyweight players called the Sparrow Quartet?

The answer began somewhere in a smoky Beijing club roughly six years ago when Washburn sang Appalachian tunes in Chinese. The seed was then planted for the unconventional Sparrow Quartet instrumentation of two banjos, violin and cello. That also triggered a passion to study further the Americana music she was singing in China. But you can also thank a serious listen to records by pioneering guitarist Doc Watson for the latter.

“I can’t even recall if it was a conscious effort to find something cultural to attach to when I came back to my own native culture or if it was just a subconscious thing. But after hearing an LP of Doc Watson, I thought to myself, ‘This is a beautiful American thing.’ So I went out and bought a banjo and listened to Doc Watson a lot. That spark of American roots music has grown into this career.”

A move to Nashville and subsequent membership in Uncle Earl furthered the performance aspect of that career. But trips to China, and eventually Tibet, continued. Gradually, the musical pals that ventured with Washburn became collaborators. Among them: Louisville-born cellist Ben Sollee, progressive bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen and a true innovator at meshing musical genres, banjoist Bela Fleck.

“None of this was intentional,” Washburn said. “We didn’t go over there together for the first time thinking, ‘We’re the Sparrow Quartet. We’re going to play in China.’ I just knew I didn’t want to let go of this love I had for the Chinese culture and the love I have for speaking the Chinese language. I didn’t want to let go of that part of my life.”

While brief performance excursions to China were workable for the ensemble, American touring was vastly tougher to arrange logistically, primarily due to Washburn’s commitments to Uncle Earl and Fleck’s work in myriad projects. But add some luck and fate to the mix, not to mention a full-length debut album which will hit stores in late May, and calendar time surfaced for the Sparrow Quartet to undertake its first extensive North American tour.

The trek will include some mammoth performances. Along with a Tuesday concert at the Kentucky Theatre, there will be appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Bonnaroo, then a trip across the ocean to play the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The album, titled simply Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet manages a bit of globe-trotting, as well. There are tastes of Sichuan folk songs, nomadic Kazakh music, Lily May Ledford banjo tradition along with numerous original quartet works.

“The four of us already knew we enjoyed playing together,” Washburn said. “But we never considered this as something we would tour in the States. We thought of it as an adventurous group that specifically toured China.

“Then as were working on the new record, we discovered that we all might be available to actually tour. We never really had the time to explore the potential of the sound we could make as a double banjo-cello-fiddle quartet. Along with the window that opened for everyone to tour the States, we became really excited about being able to put quite a bit of time into the group. It feels like a real unveiling of our music.”

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet performs at 7 p.m. April 1 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. Tickets are $23, $27.50. Call (859) 231-7924.



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