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Alison Brown goes back to bluegrass

By Henry Koretzky, June 2000

Alison Brown has been a pioneer throughout most of her still young career. She's been the pre-eminent female banjoist in acoustic music even before her first solo album, "Simple Pleasures," was released on Vanguard a full decade ago.

Prior to that, her duo album with fiddler Stuart Duncan ("Pre-Sequel") and stints with Northern Lights and Alison Krauss & Union Station plus a later tour of duty as Michelle Shocked's musical director during the latter's "Arkansas Traveler" period, brought her both valuable experience and a glowing reputation.

Brown's bebop-influenced album, "Quartet," and her leadership in the eclectic Nashville label, Compass, further established her as a woman whose career choices are driven by daring and experimentation.

So why is her sixth album as a leader, "Fair Weather," a return to her acoustic music and bluegrass roots after fronting a banjo/piano/bass/drums ensemble for the past few years?

"I thought it would be great fun and a good challenge to make a bluegrass record. And it's something that I don't really feel like I've ever set out to do before. All my records have always been trying to push the envelope in some way or other. But I came up playing bluegrass music, and that's how I got my start, and I just thought it'd be great to get some of my favorite bluegrass musicians together and make a record that could be considered all the way around to be bluegrass."

"I think my goals as an artist and for the label are the same, which is mainly to make a product that is marketable and as focused as I can towards a niche. That actually was one of the fun things about this record as my other records have tended to be this jazz/folk hybrid, which is trickier to market."

"With this record it's great, because it's a bluegrass record - that's what my goal was as an artist, and as a label, the goal is to just make everybody who's a bluegrass fan want to have the record. It's actually worked out great."

While "Fair Weather" will appeal to acoustic string music purists who might have been turned off by the jazzier components of her last two releases, this is by no means all hard-core bluegrass.

The most traditional-sounding number, her playfully named "Girl's Breakdown," complete with liberal use of Scruggs tuners, allows Brown to stretch out over a hard-driving grassy groove with Duncan, Sam Bush, Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas.

But "The Devil Went Down to Berkeley" traverses more typically adventurous waters harmonically, along with the core musicians of the old David Grisman Quintet, Rice with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Todd Phillips (the latter three of whom also play with Brown, Tim O'Brien and Philip Aaberg in New Grange).

Brown is exceptionally generous at sharing the spotlight.

"I had never recorded anything with Bla (Fleck) before, and I think David Grier I'd never recorded anything with either. Although we've probably played on the same tunes, on someone else's record, but not at the same time. And I've never recorded anything with Matt Flinner. So, there were a few folks that I've never recorded with before. Vince (Gill) is another one for sure."

Brown more than holds her own while showing off her own impressive guitar chops with the incredible guitarist Grier on "Deep Gap," and she re-records her earlier composition, "Leaving Cottondale" (first on "Simple Pleasures"), matching banjo rolls with Fleck himself.

"I went over to Japan in 1991 and ran into a Japanese banjo player named Taku Kawamata, and he had worked out a version for twin banjos for "Leaving Cottondale."

"And I thought it sounded great for two banjos, so I'd always had it in the back of my mind to redo it that way. So, Bla was able to come in and play a twin banjo part. People haven't done a lot of twin banjo stuff recently, so that was another reason I thought it would be fun to do."

The all-star pairing continues as she makes way for mandolinists Bush and Marshall to square off on "Poe's Pickin' Party." She also shines on her own during the adventurous swapping of licks with fiddler Anger on the outro to "Everybody's Talkin'."

Brown included guest vocalists on otherwise-instrumental albums to new heights with "Fair Weather."

"All of my records have been all-instrumental with the exception of one track on my second record ("Sweet Thames Flow Softly" with Maura O'Connell from "Twilight Motel"). The reason I wanted to have vocals on this record is just because I think vocals are such an important part of bluegrass that to present a well-rounded take on bluegrass you sort of need to have the vocal stuff in there, too. And I felt that I had some interesting ideas, even though I'm not a vocalist. I thought there were some tunes that could make great bluegrass tunes. And three of the four we recorded, not including 'Fair Weather,' that folks probably really had never heard before, were taken from other genres and adapted to bluegrass music. And I felt that that was kind of an original thing and worthwhile in that way."

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