Alison Brown Continues to Break Barriers

By Ross Boissoneau

A Renaissance woman. A label owner. An investment banker. An award-winning banjoist. A boundary breaker.

Alison Brown

Alison Brown

Alison Brown is – or in one case was – all these things and more. The celebrated artist has a new recording coming this summer on which she collaborated with everyone from with Grammy Award-winning musician/actor/author Steve Martin, virtuoso mandolinist Sierra Hull, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen and multicultural chamber group Kronos Quartet to classical guitarist Sharon Isbin (also a Grammy winner) and fiddle stalwart Stuart Duncan.

Seems she’s firmly ensconced in the music world these days, despite her academic education and early professional work. Brown graduated from Harvard University and earned an MBA from UCLA to pursue a career in investment banking, working for Smith Barney for two years. That was before, as Wikipedia puts it, “taking a break to pursue her musical interests.”

“It was a very long break,” said Brown with a laugh. “I’m probably not returning (to finance). I left my investment banking job to play and write music. Even my parents are reconciled” to her career.

As well they should be. She’s become one of the most celebrated banjo players on the planet, with awards including being named Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Association (the first female to win that recognition) and multiple Grammy Awards.

She first came to national prominence when Alison Krauss persuaded her to give up that investment banking career to join Krauss’s band Union Station. She followed that by becoming bandleader for Michelle Shocked before forming the Alison Brown Quartet in 1993.

She’s since embraced a role where she tries to showcase her chosen instrument’s versatility. Brown said it’s important to her to continue to break boundaries, not simply as a female banjoist, but taking the banjo into different idioms. “The banjo is much maligned. Banjo was just used for high-speed chases and bank robberies” on TV and in movies, she said.

The instrument’s history is fascinating and much deeper and varied than some would imagine. In the early 1800s it was associated with Black men playing blues, gospel and spirituals and folk-style music. By the late 1800s it was the parlor instrument of choice for demure young white ladies. In the 20th century it became popular in country-western and bluegrass music, which continues to this day, somewhat to Brown’s chagrin. While she loves bluegrass, “A lot of people haven’t looked past the endless Hee Haw reruns,” she said.

She credits several people for the renewed interest in and expansion of the instrument’s style, including fellow banjo icon Bela Fleck and jam bands. No doubt much of the credit belongs to her as well, and she’s dedicated to continue those efforts, as she does with On Banjo. She and her banjo explore everything from Latin, swing-era jazz, and Celtic to classical, Brazilian choro, and chamber music.

One of the standout tracks is “Sun And Water,” which brings together the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” and Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March.” She said it was inspired by the stories of the New York City hospitals during the early days of the pandemic, which would play “Here Comes The Sun” as they discharged recovering COVID patients. Brown said it seems almost made for her instrument. “It lays so well I could imagine George Harrison writing it for banjo,” she said. “Even better, as I was playing around with it, I discovered that it has a musical kinship with another of my favorite melodies, Jobim’s anthemic ‘Waters of March,’ so I couldn’t resist weaving them together. It worked.”

That’s just one of the many joy-filled tunes on the recording. “There are certain people I wanted to collaborate with,” said Brown. “Choro ‘Nuff” features clarinetist Cohen, while “Porches” combines classical and bluesy-grass with noted musical iconoclasts Kronos Quartet. The gentle melody of “Foggy Morning Breaking” pairs her with Steve Martin in a banjo duet, while “Regalito” marries her banjo with the guitar of Sharon Isbin. “I’d played with Sharon and really enjoyed it. There are so few female instrumentalists. She’s like my long-lost sister. So I wrote her this tune,” said Brown.

The album also nods to Brown’s bluegrass roots as an artist who grew up influenced by banjo icon Earl Scruggs. On Banjo was recorded at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville, and is an effort for her label Compass Records, which she founded in 1993 with her business partner and husband, bassist and producer Garry West. Today the label also includes Green Linnet, Xenophile and Red House Records, and features over 1,000 releases.

Brown regularly uses two different banjos. One is a Prucha, made in Prague. She uses a custom set of D’Addario strings for it. The other is a Julia Belle low banjo by the American manufacturer Deering. The 24-fret low tuned banjo features John Hartford’s hand drawn artwork on the fingerboard as well as design aesthetics and features customized by Brown. It features heavier-gauge D’Addario strings, 10, 12, 14 and 22, with a nickel-wound fourth string. “I helped design both,” said Brown. The latter is her tribute to John Hartford. “It complemented his baritone,” she said.

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

One thought on “Alison Brown Continues to Break Barriers

  1. Thought I would like her more if I knew more about her. Have a Julia Belle banjo I play in conventional G tuning. Plan to switch to the low tuning she uses.

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