Music & Nightlife

Alison Brown shows banjos aren’t just for bluegrass

Banjo player Alison Brown’s latest album, “The Song of the Banjo” – her first release in six years – isn’t your typical banjo album. While Brown’s instrument of choice is ever present, it’s used more as a supportive centerpiece than a flashy one.

“I had two goals with this record,” says Brown. “To really try to show the lyrical or more beautiful side of the banjo. I think people associate it with bluegrass music, bank robberies and car chases. For people who are new to banjo, it’s hard to hear the melodies within the arpeggios.

“These songs also all had real popularity in the ’70s and early ’80s. They’ve been around long enough that if there was a second volume of ‘The Great American Songbook,’ they’d be a part of that.”

Brown, who plays Neighborhood Theatre Thursday, has never been your typical banjo picker.

A native Southern Californian, she was a rare female in a male-dominated genre. A Harvard-educated MBA, she left behind a career as a banker to play banjo with Alison Krauss and Michele Shocked before starting her own label – Compass Records, in 1993 – back when artist-run independent labels were far from the norm.

She credits her West Coast upbringing for her open-minded approach to bluegrass. “The Song of the Banjo,” for instance, incorporates jazz, Celtic and other styles with the help of non-bluegrass musicians like the Indigo Girls, Jake Shimabukuro and Men at Work’s Colin Haye.

“In Southern California, our concept of bluegrass was a little more broad. It was really common for bluegrass bands to play ‘Carolina in the Pines’ or ‘Dance With Me,’” she says of two tracks she covers on “Song.” “This part of the country is really tied to tradition. I would guess traditional bluegrass in Charlotte, N.C., was more centered around first- and second-generation players. A big influence on Southern California bluegrass was the David Grisman Quintet – this cutting-edge string music that was related to bluegrass because the musicians had all played bluegrass music and were cutting a new path. That was as inspiring to me as Earl Scruggs and ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ 

Much has changed since then with recent folk revival and the success of artists like herself, Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Gillian Welch, and Nickel Creek in the post-“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” world.

“Bluegrass music is traditionally male-dominated music; but anymore, women are at the cutting edge of interesting bands. People just don’t say, ‘You play good for a girl,’ anymore. It would be silly to say that,” she says. “It’s really changed. It’s a good thing for the music. For the uninitiated it’s easier to fall in love with bluegrass from a female voice than a high male tenor, which is an acquired taste.

“Even the International Bluegrass Music Association,” she says of the once tradition-rooted organization. “I feel like when you go to their World of Bluegrass now you see such a breadth of music you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago. There’s room for a lot of different kinds of music in the spirit of innovation that bluegrass started with.”

Alison Brown

When: 8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.

Tickets: $20-$25.

Details: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.

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