Interview with Abigail Washburn

Abigail Washburn
Abigail Washburn

Interview and Photos by Scott Preston

Abigail Washburn never set out to be a songwriter or a recording artist. Five years ago when she found herself on stage in a smoke-filled Beijing club playing her banjo and singing old-time Appalachian mountain music in Chinese to a packed house, she was as surprised as anyone. “A daring, definite talent, whose feel for the folk idiom results in moving material. Soulful is the word,” hailed the Wall Street Journal in 2005, during that same tour of China. “On stage, her voice resonated with the power of a seasoned performer and her poetic hill tunes sounded all the more evocative in Chinese.”
As an “artist who best embodies the notion of Americana as a worldwide musical language” (The Tennessean), Abigail has created a new sound – a sound that challenges traditional notions of country and culture, embodied in the raw, transcendental music of the Sparrow Quartet. The all-star collaboration featuring Bela Fleck, acclaimed cellist Ben Sollee and Grammy-nominated fiddler, Casey Driessen will unveil Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet in May 2008 (Nettwerk).

Cincy Groove: Did you have a good time at Fall hookahville a few weeks ago?

Abigail Washburn: That was a really fun show, although we were kind of nervous when we showed up. It was early in the day, it was really hot and we didn’t see anyone. But once we started playing a lot of really thoughtful people started coming down and were taking in what we were doing. It ended up being really awesome for us.

Cincy Groove: I understand you speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. How long did it take you to learn?

Abigail Washburn: It took me about 8 years to be comfortable speaking the language. In the beginning when you are learning something the curve is pretty huge. You put a lot into it, but you also get a lot of out it. You go from being able to say nothing to saying something and expressing your needs. Then you get to a point where you are pretty conversational, which took me about 8 years. Now I’m 12 years in and I have kind of plateaued out and I’m kind of looking for that next mountain range to climb.

Cincy Groove: How did you trip to China go for you and the Sparrow Quartet?

Abigail Washburn: It was a different experience than I was thinking was going to happen. If thats good or bad, I don’t know (laughing). There were 3 things we were really supposed to do, one was we were to supposed to play at the opening of the new US Embassy, we were supposed to go and play in the area that was hardest hit after the recent earthquakes, and last we were supposed to play a public event related to the Olympics. None of those three things ended up happening.

We didn’t play the embassy opening because The Gatlin Bros ended up coming and taking our spot, because they are President Bush’s favorite band apparently. We ended up playing a house concert at the Ambassador’s house which was super fun it just wasn’t what we were expecting. We were diverted away from the earthquake damaged areas because I guess the Chinese government doesn’t want foreigners to see how bad the situation really is. Instead we were sent to these factory towns in south east China , which happens to be one of my least favorite parts of China for many, many reasons not including the fact its a really sick capitalistic economy that is based on the suffering of the poor. The Olympic event we were supposed to play got canceled because the Chinese government was afraid of protests at the event. S we just got screwed all around (laughing). We did get to do some really interesting stuff, it just wasn’t what we were expecting.

Cincy Groove: Did the Chinese that saw you play get excited when you would start singing in their language?

Abigail Washburn: Yes they did get very excited. I think there is a lot to be said to be able to communicate the sound of the band to a foreign audience when you can sing it in their language.

Cincy Groove: When did you first have an interest in China?

Abigail Washburn: It became an interest for me after my first trip there in 1996 after my freshman year in college. It was with a group from school and we went for 7 weeks. In all honesty I didn’t like China after my first trip there. But I decided to go back and started learning to speak Chinese. I figured if I could learn to communicate in Chinese my perspective of the culture and of myself would change drastically and it did. It has become a very long lasting connection for me that will lead me to keep going back for the rest of my life.

Cincy Groove: So how did you end up meeting Ben, Bela and Casey?

Abigail Washburn: Well Casey was one of the first people I met when I got to Nashville and he seemed pretty adventurous. So when I started thinking about the trip to China I called him up and said what do you think about doing a fiddle / banjo duo gig? He said “Awesome, I’m in.” A couple other friends found out about it and said “We want to go too” Nobody got paid to go to China to play although we did get a little that was good for covering some of our costs. Ben and I met up in 2003 to record my first solo cd, Songs of a Traveling Daughter. We became kindred musical spirits and started traveling the road together playing music from that album. Bela came in as a co producer on Song of a Traveling Daughter. All of them expressed interest at one time or another in going to China. So when I was planning to go back in 2005 I called all of them up and said “Hey do you want to goto China?” All of them said yes and I wasn’t even thinking at the time that we were this weird combination of banjo, banjo, fiddle, cello. I figured we would just figure that out as we went and we did.

Cincy Groove: Who are some of your influences?

Abigail Washburn: Female singers in the old time tradition like Jenny Hauker, Alice Gerard. Doc Watson has had a huge influence on why I play music and what I want to communicate when I play.

Cincy Groove: How do you feel the internet has affected the music industry?

Abigail Washburn: The only thing that makes me super sad about the whole situation is about the decline of local music/record stores. Those kind of places are great for communities to come together and talk with each other and listen to good music. What I don’t mind is that being a musician and a singer has become a lot less exclusive and I think thats a great thing. The only thing about that is that its a lot harder to make money as a touring musician because people are spending their money in a lot more different places since the playing field is so level now.


The Sparrow Quartet:
Abigail Washburn – Banjo, Vocals
Bela Fleck – Banjo
Casey Driessen – Fiddle
Ben Sollee – Cello

Upcoming Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet tour dates:
for complete show details visit
11 Sep Memorial Hall Chapel Hill NC
13 Sep Dominican University PAC River Forest IL
14 Sep Turner Hall Milwaukee WI
15 Sep Guthrie Theater Proscenium Minneapolis MN
16 Sep Barrymore Theatre Madison WI
17 Sep The Music Mill Indianapolis IN
19 Sep The Ark Ann Arbor MI
20 Sep Parrish Auditorium Hamilton OH
25 Sep Sunoco Performance Theater Harrisburg PA
27 Sep Dosey Doe The Woodlands TX
28 Sep Austin City Limits Music Fest Austin TX
1 Oct Broadway Theater Woodstock New York
2 Oct Town Crier Cafe Pawling New York
3 Oct The First Parish Church Cambridge MA
4 Oct Flynn Theatre Burlington VT
5 Oct The Community Theatre Morristown NJ
7 Oct St. James Hall Vancouver BC CAN
9 Oct The Tractor Tavern Seattle WA
10 Oct Portland Art Musuem Portland OR
16 Oct Bijou Theatre Knoxville TN
17 Oct Ferst Center for the Arts Atlanta GA
18 Oct Plaza Arts Center Eatonton GA
19 Oct Lake Eden Arts Festival Black Mountain NC