As Amelia Earhart is to aviation, as Julia Child is to the culinary arts, Alison Brown is to the five-string banjo. She created a seismic shift in the instrument’s history when her wholly individual style gained her entry into the elite class of acknowledged banjo innovators—who, at the time, were all men.
Starting In the mid-20th century, thanks to the stylistic innovations of Earl Scruggs, the banjo largely became identified for its role in bluegrass music. Other men pushed the instrument to new stylistic heights, led by forward-thinkers such as Bill Keith, Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck.
Alison Brown broadened the instrument’s sound and identity when she rose through the ranks by developing a distinctive voice as a player and composer. Breaking precedent, she gained recognition when she became the first woman to win an International Bluegrass Music Award in an instrumental category. As the IBMA’s 1991 Banjo Player of the Year, she marked a sea change within the organization, which now regularly honors women instrumentalists.
Like many of her peers, Brown picked up the banjo after hearing Earl Scruggs; at age 10, she heard the Flatt & Scruggs’ album, Foggy Mountain Banjo, and her destiny was sealed. But, while her roots extend deep into bluegrass, her musical vision has always looked beyond the genre. On her 1991 GRAMMY-nominated debut, Simple Pleasures, she explored Latin and jazz alongside bluegrass with producer David Grisman, one of the early acoustic pioneers to blur musical borders. Her latest album, aptly titled On Banjo, continues that thread with Brown offering a musical autobiography of sorts. She explores the breadth of her instrument with original compositions that acknowledge her bluegrass roots yet venture confidently into broader stylistic horizons, putting her mark on Brazilian choro music, chamber music, Latin-fused classical and swing-era jazz.
While many of Brown’s previous albums have included guest vocalists (check out Keb’ Mo’ on “What’s Going On?” from 2015’s Song of the Banjo), her new collection is a purely instrumental outing. She invited an eclectic cast of collaborators, including fellow female virtuosos Sharon Isbin, Anat Cohen, and Sierra Hull, as well as banjo player/comedian/actor Steve Martin, multi-cultural chamber group Kronos Quartet, childhood pal and fiddle stalwart Stuart Duncan, and the supremely talented members of her touring quintet. In her mind, having guest musicians from across a variety of musical genres helps to shine a light on the disparate musical influences that co-exist within the banjo’s DNA.
“When I think about where the banjo can go I can’t help but think about where it has been,” says Brown. “Most people know the banjo from bluegrass music and have heard the enormous influence Earl Scruggs had on the instrument. But many aren’t as aware of the banjo in early jazz or of its immense popularity in late 19th century America. In a twist I find fascinating, during that period the banjo was the parlor instrument of choice for demure young white women to play with their legs crossed, ‘just so.’ All that history before Earl Scruggs ever played a lick!”
The GRAMMY Award winner, and co-founder of the nearly 30-year-old Compass Records Group with producer/bassist/husband Garry West, Brown is considered among the world’s foremost banjoists and composers. In her hands, the banjo is equally at home on the front porch or the symphony hall. Throughout her career, she has taken the banjo beyond its Appalachian roots, blending bluegrass and jazz influences into a unique sonic tapestry that has earned praise from national tastemakers, including The Wall Street Journal, CBS Sunday Morning, National Public Radio and USA Today. Among many firsts, she is the only female five-string banjoist inducted into the American Banjo Hall of Fame. Leader of the renowned Alison Brown Quintet, she also is a frequent collaborator with other artists, including Indigo Girls and Steve Martin. Brown also co-chairs the annual Steve Martin Banjo Prize with its namesake, which speaks to their mutual respect.
Garry West, her longtime co-producer, cites Brown’s compositional talents as her secret weapon. “Alison is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s best banjo players,” West says. “But her original tunes are every bit as notable as her instrumental ability. Her compositions are so diverse and distinctive, which is key when you look at the scope of her work and how she’s maintained such a unique voice and a consistently high quality over the years.”
For On Banjo, Brown wrote a Brazilian choro to play with Israeli jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen; classical-influenced pieces to play with guitarist Sharon Isbin and with the Kronos Quartet; a blistering duet with Sierra Hull on “Sweet Sixteenths;” and a banjo/fiddle tune to play with longtime collaborator Stuart Duncan that tributes their shared California bluegrass mentors Byron Berline and John Hickman.
Isbin notes that she collaborated with Brown onstage at the 2010 GRAMMY Awards, and she has admired her ever since. “I was honored when she wrote her joyous, Latin-flavored ‘Regalito’ for me, with its virtuosic finger-busting guitar part,” Isbin said. “Hearing for the first time the two sound worlds of nylon string guitar with banjo was a revelation, and the hot tune’s irresistible rhythms and colorful sounds with her band make it a winner.”
Similarly, Cohen expressed delight about the chance to collaborate with Brown on “Choro ‘Nuff,” which included the Brazilian musicians Alexandre Lora on pandeiro and Douglas Lora on seven-string guitar. “I cannot think of a better way to get to know a person than through their music,” Cohen said. “I discovered a sensitive, swinging, virtuosic, collaborative, and kind musician. I felt immediately at home sharing the melodies with her, intertwining my clarinet lines with Alison’s flowing banjo playing. This song makes me smile every time I hear it.”
Steve Martin described Brown as “the great lyrical genius of modern banjo.” The two co-wrote “Foggy Morning Breaking,” pairing Martin’s clawhammer playing with Brown’s Scruggs-style banjo. Brown’s inspiration for the tune grew out of various backstage jams with Martin in double C tuning, a particular favorite of his, and borrowed the title from a lyric by John Hartford, an early influence on and collaborator with Martin and later musical influence for Brown.
Hartford’s influence comes up again on “Sun and Water,” showcasing Brown’s arrangement sensibilities on a clever mash-up of the George Harrison composition “Here Comes the Sun” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco” (“Waters of March”). Brown plays a low banjo on the track, an instrument John Hartford used frequently to accompany his baritone voice and which she and many others consider to be his sonic signature. She played her Julia Belle low banjo on the track, an instrument she created in collaboration with Deering Banjos and which includes inlays of Hartford’s artwork on the fingerboard. “I think of John every time I pick up a low banjo,” Brown says. “That particular sound was so much a part of his music and it’s a special legacy he left for us banjo players.”
The Alison Brown Quintet—with John Ragusa on flute, Chris Walters on piano, Garry West on bass, and Jordan Perlson on drums—shines throughout On Banjo, from the engaging opener, “Wind the Clock,” through the aptly titled barnburner, “Old Shatterhand,” to “BanJobim,” which features Brown on a custom banjola and on nylon string guitar and offers another nod to Brazilian music and master guitarist-composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Taken together, Brown, her studio cohort West, her guests, and the rest of her band have fashioned yet another distinctive collection that defies expectations, crosses musical divides, and brings new sounds and ideas to a band led by a banjoist. Brown comments: “The moment I discovered Earl Scruggs, I unwittingly set off on a journey with an instrument that, at every personal crossroad, has shaped the direction of my life. Although bluegrass music was my first love, I’m still endlessly fascinated by reaching outside the box and exploring other musical possibilities through writing my own tunes for the banjo. To me that seems fitting for an instrument whose legacy extends beyond our shores and whose history is older than our nation itself. I believe the banjo has a lot to tell us about ourselves if we know how to listen.”
At a time when musical hybrids seem to be all the rage, it’s important to acknowledge that Brown has been blurring musical boundaries since the beginning of her career. As a banjoist, she is often and easily labeled a bluegrass musician, but the reality is that none of her solo records have been traditional bluegrass. From her GRAMMY-nominated debut forward, her music has boldly included elements of jazz, Latin and Celtic music in addition to bluegrass. On Banjo is a continuation of Brown’s innovative, technical, and compositional artistry. What genre is it? Who cares? It’s Alison Brown music.