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Alison Brown goes back to bluegrass

By Henry Koretzky, June 2000

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"Everybody's Talkin'," from "Midnight Cowboy," is sung here by Tim O'Brien, while Bush comes up with an intriguing rendition of Elvis Costello's "Everyday I Write the Book" and Claire Lynch adds her sweet and soulful voice to the song "Hummingbird."

"Those ideas came from Garry West, who produced the record. He's got a really good pop background, and he thought those tunes would lend themselves really well to bluegrass, and I think he's right. When I heard the Elvis Costello tune, there's a repeating riff in the original version that sounds just like a banjo lick. So, we incorporated that in, and I think they really worked out great. (As for "Everybody's Talkin'"), that's one of those nice mid-tempo tunes that suits a banjo really well. That's actually a really fun one to play."

But the most interesting story of all lies behind the title track. "Fair Weather" was written by Steve Libbea, brother of Nashville Bluegrass Band bassist Gene Libbea.

Back in Brown's younger days, she, Duncan, the Libbea brothers, and a guy by the name of Gill put together an ad hoc bluegrass quintet in order to enter (and, not surprisingly, win) a band contest at Knott's Berry Farm in California.

Steve Libbea died tragically at a young age in a plane crash, so Brown re-assembled the remaining members of that one-shot band on this recording to pay tribute to her late friend.

"It was great! I was thrilled that everybody was so excited about doing the tune. I think we all had a really good time in the studio together recreating that tune. I've always thought it was a great song. When I called Vince up and mentioned it to him, he remembered it and sang part of it back to me over the phone. So, it's a real catchy tune - even that many years later he remembered it. We had a great time doing it."

Brown's amazing musical talent can appear to overshadow the part of her that heads Compass. Though she attended Harvard and got her MBA from UCLA, her memories of her years working in the financial world yielded a quote from her that was widely circulated years ago, along the lines of, "The worst day on the road playing music is better than the best day in the business office."

Reminded of that statement in the context of her twin roles as musician and record company executive, she reflects, "Well, it's a constant challenge juggling the two. I love to get the opportunity to go out and tour. But my job's just so much more related to music when I'm in the office that that has a certain satisfaction to me that taxes and bonds never really had. And so, even when I'm sitting in the office and working on promoting somebody else's music and exposing the public to a great new artist that I think they're going to really like, that has a certain satisfaction, too. So, I probably wouldn't make an emphatic statement about it these days, just because the two things are much more tied together for me than they used to be."

So does this CD mark a significant new direction for Brown? On the contrary, "I didn't really make this record to be a touring event. It's more like a recorded event. And we may go out and do a couple of dates, maybe with Darol Anger and Mike Marshall, to play some of these tunes. But really, kind of the most interesting musical challenge for me is continuing to develop the music for my quartet. So, that's the next thing that I want to do and that's what I've started thinking about, is another quartet record, which I hope to have out in the next year or so. We're continually on the road with that group."

And Brown faces the rigors of the road with more than just her prodigious talent, determination and business acumen, but also with a sense of humor, as evidenced by her response when asked if she ever tells banjo jokes herself: "Sure, I do, yeah. I think it's important not to take yourself too seriously. I've always kind of been partial to 'How do you know that the stage is level?' ('The banjo player drools out of both sides of his mouth.') Or 'How do you know that there's a banjo player at the door?' 'The knocking speeds up.' There are a lot of good ones, and it never bothers me. I kind of like them."

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