Alison Brown’s life changed when she picked up the banjo, but the banjo changed as well.
In the late 1970s, as an academically accomplished high schooler and the child of lawyers, Brown was heading for Harvard University on her way to becoming a doctor. But unbeknownst to her and her family, her adolescent fling with the banjo would become her guiding passion. She became an award-winning musician, often cited for expanding the banjo’s repertoire beyond bluegrass.
“A lot of times when people see a banjo, they want to hear it playing music to accompany a high-speed car chase or bank robbery,” said Brown, who performs at Roy’s Hall in Blairstown, Jan. 12. “It’s a little bit hard to overcome that stereotype. People tend to forget that the banjo’s musical history is so much deeper.”
Brown’s senior thesis at Harvard was on the cultural origins of the banjo. “Bluegrass is really a new thing,” she said. “It was invented in 1945. Before that, the banjo was in jazz and was a Black instrument that was appropriated by white musicians at the beginning of the 1800s. And by the end of the 1800s, (it) was the most popular instrument for white bourgeois women to play in their parlors in the north.”
As a teenager in Southern California, Brown became enamored of the banjo, and particularly of the playing of bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs. She joined the San Diego Bluegrass Club at the age of 12 and began to seek out bluegrass shows wherever she could find them.
She won a Canadian banjo competition at 16. And at Harvard, her dorm room became known as a hot spot for impromptu bluegrass jams.
“One of the reasons I love bluegrass music and roots music so much is it does build community and there’s a place in the music for you, no matter what your musical skill level is,” she said. “I think that’s such a beautiful thing.”
She noted that it is relatively easy to start playing songs on the banjo. “So it doesn’t take much to play music with other people. … The whole thing is music is meant to bring people together. And regardless of political beliefs or race or nationality or anything else, you can enjoy playing music with other people. That’s something that’s enriched my life so much.”
Brown said she recently launched an online instructional course, in part, because she “wanted to pay forward my love of banjo.” (Visit artistworks.com/banjo-lessons-alison-brown.)
While Brown’s gateway drug into banjo was her discovery of Scruggs, her career is marked by a conscious expansion of the instrument’s repertoire.
After working for two years at the financial services company Smith Barney, Brown took what she thought would be a six-month leave to pursue music. She ended up playing with rising bluegrass star Alison Krauss for three years. Brown’s first solo album, 1990’s Simple Pleasures, was nominated for a Grammy and she was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s banjo player of the year in 1991.
“I started off with both feet firmly planted in bluegrass,” she said. “Then as I started to play more and try to write more, I found that my meanderings took me in other directions, which made sense since, I think, in a sense, we are what we eat, and I grew up listening to all kinds of things.”
In 1992 Brown toured with the self-described “skateboard punk rocker” Michelle Shocked. Around that time, she started a record company with her husband, bassist Gary West.
“We just kept talking about how it seemed like there needed to be an artist-run label in the roots music space,” Brown said. “It really felt like, you know, who better than artists to run a record label?”
On her 2023 album On Banjo, she continues to explore the instrument’s possibilities. She mashes up The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” with Antônio Carlos Jobim’s bossa classic “Waters of March” (listen below) and collaborates with The Kronos Quartet, jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, comedian-banjoist Steve Martin, mandolinist Sierra Hull and her childhood friend, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan.
Brown said she loved Cohen’s playing and approached her with “Choro ‘Nuff,” in the Brazilian instrumental style called choro, and Cohen said yes. “That was a great moment for me because I love that style of music,” Brown said. “I’m not sure that banjo players have tried much to play choro. I love the way it turned out because I think there’s a real kinship (of musical styles) there that made it work.
“To bluegrass fans, our band and our presentation sounds like jazz. But to jazz fans, our presentation and music sounds like bluegrass. We’re just, I think, doomed to be a hybrid. But it feels right to me personally, because it wouldn’t be true to me to just play bluegrass music — even though I love playing bluegrass music. I also like taking this instrument that’s capable of so much lyricism and so much more into different places where I think it fits so well, and hopefully draws new fans.”
The Alison Brown Quintet will perform at Roy’s Hall in Blairstown, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. Visit royshall.org.
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