Abby in Wonderland

Blending American roots with Chinese culture produces a unique journey for one musician.

Abigail Washburn never intended to be a musician, but now she delivers unforgettable performances—in Chinese.

Abby Washburn (Chinese School ’98, ’01) is living in a dream world. In it, she can hear the high, lonesome strains of bluegrass music; she can travel exotic landscapes, witness the magical entrance of her heroes, and see other wonderful, serendipitous events happen. But like another famous dreamer, she has discovered her dream world quite by accident, backwards, “through the looking glass,” as it were. This is true especially of her unexpected success as a musical artist—an artist who fuses two very different worlds, Appalachia and China.

“I never thought there was a career for me in music,” Washburn admits, with emphasis on never. “I couldn’t have dreamt that dream at the time it happened. This dream found me, not the other way around.”

Washburn began her journey when she was a student at Colorado College. Her ambition early on was to get to China, learn the language, and work in a field, such as law, that would allow her to combine her love for the Far East with her American roots. But her first trip was a disappointment and almost put her off her mission. “I went to China to study the language,” she says. “I was 18, and the experience of going to a country with such a different culture was very difficult for me. I didn’t connect at all with the Chinese people, and I went away feeling frustrated.”

Despite these difficulties, she returned a year later, this time to Sichuan University’s technology college, where she enrolled in a six-month program. There she met a professor named Wang Dehua, a kindly, older woman who mentored Washburn in the ways of the Chinese world. Amid an array of birds in bamboo cages, exotic potted flowers, and delicious jasmine tea, Wang recited poetry to her young student and explained its meaning in the beautiful ambiguity of Chinese translated into English. “Her stories of her country’s history and its characters were so moving that I would shed at least a few tears every time I was with her,” Washburn recalls. The color and intimacy of her encounters with Teacher Wang deepened Washburn’s relationship with Chinese culture.

While studying at Colorado College, from which she would graduate as the school’s first Asian studies major, Washburn was accepted to Middlebury’s Chinese School in 1998, and her journey continued. She plunged headlong into high-intensity Classical Chinese. “The Language School was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” she says. “You have to totally surrender to the program or else the language spanks you! But the quality of the teaching was fabulous, and the immersion gave me the ability to comprehend, learn, and speak.”

After her second stint at Middlebury and living in Vermont several years, Washburn moved to Nashville to take a new job, and it was in this new place that another side of her emerged. “I remember one day I heard an old-time version of Doc Watson’s ‘Shady Grove,’” she says, “and it totally floored me! It was primitive and funky and gorgeous all at once!”

She plunged into American folk music and its cultural roots. Doc Watson became one of her heroes. “Music of the Appalachias combines our immigrant and slave cultures of West Africa and Europe with Scottish/Irish melodies, and the result is a very American thing,” she says. She was so smitten with the music that she bought a banjo. She had never actually learned an instrument before, and learning the banjo is notoriously slow going. She asked around Nashville and turned up a banjo tutor named Riley Baugus, one of the best pluckers around. He gave her a crash course in the clawhammer banjo.

Washburn had officially embarked on a love affair with old-time music. Although she had no way of knowing at the time, her romance would become her ticket back to China—she would soon become a musical ambassador, bringing the old-time music of America to the eager audiences of China and the Orient.

Growing up, Washburn lived a pretty normal life. Her family, which included Mom, Dad, and an older brother, followed her father’s career path, which led to life in suburban neighborhoods in D.C., Chicago, and Minneapolis. That upbringing didn’t involve much music, at least not for Washburn.

“My brother proved to be the real musician in the family,” she admits, adding that during her collegiate experience she had explored music, but only as a singer in choirs and assorted bands. “I remember him constantly playing his Steinberger guitar in the basement, honing his craft.” She laughs. “I wasn’t that person at all!”

After learning the banjo and fully embracing old-time music and bluegrass, her life changed with absurd alacrity. She was discovered, quite by accident, jamming with three other women at a bluegrass conference in Louisville, and received a recording contract practically on the spot.

In 2004 she joined the acclaimed Uncle Earl (“all g’earls!”), a band that grew a sizable following in the bluegrass community. Yet even as Washburn worked extensively with her new bandmates, she also began writing and recording solo material. Her own debut, Song of the Traveling Daughter, a bilingual album featuring both English and Chinese lyrics, came out in 2005. At the same time, she and a handful of musicians from Nashville (including future husband and banjo hero Béla Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee, and Casey Driessen on fiddle) came together as the Sparrow Quintet—acoustic music wedded to Chinese lyrics. Touring in China, they made such an impact, they were invited on the first-ever official tour by an American band in Tibet.

In 2008, Washburn took a different type of trip to China. The Sichuan earthquake had taken the lives of 80,000 people in the province she had come to know so well. To raise money and awareness, she and electronic artist David Liang spent two weeks in early 2009 making an album called Afterquake. “We traveled around the province playing, and kids would come up to us after and pour their hearts out in song.” The Americans recorded the children, many of whom had been separated from their parents, singing these songs.

She and Liang layered the children’s voices over a rhythmic sampling of sounds from the rebuilding: cement mixers, shovels, bricks, and anything else they could turn into music. The result is a unique sonic fusion that ended up raising thousands of dollars for rebuilding. “Sichuan has been an amazing friend to me over the years,” she says. “It has opened my heart forever, and really changed my life. I just wanted to be a friend back.”

In blending the musical boundaries of America and China, she has finally found the perfect crossroads of her cultural passions. Her next album is a solo project that will be out in late 2010. “My goal is to grow into an artist who has something meaningful to share,” she says. “I want to do something that can help entire communities of people. The world can live with less suffering and more kindness and love. It’s a very spiritual path.”

Bob Gulla ’83 most recently wrote about musician Anaïs Mitchell ’04 in the summer 2008 issue. He is a journalist in Wakefield, Rhode Island.

Abigail Washburn’s music can be found at www.abigailwashburn.com.

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