Thanks to Casey Phillips and the Times Free Press for making Alison Brown a cover feature in this week’s Chattanooga NOW. Read an insightful interview, and come hear the Alison Brown Quartet live tonight!
Banjo maestro Alison Brown showcases different facets of the five-string at Barking Legs
BY CASEY PHILLIPS ARTICLE POSTED ON THU. DEC. 17TH, 2015
As the head of Compass Records, Alison Brown spends a lot of time shepherding the work of other musicians from studio to shelf. That doesn’t always leave Brown — a multi-Grammy-nominated progressive banjo player — much time to devote to her own projects.
“It’s definitely a case of ‘Mama eats last,’” she laughs.
A one-time member of Alison Krauss & Union Station and an International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year, Brown released 10 albums between 1990 and 2009, most within two years of one another. Her latest, “The Song of the Banjo,” however, took six years to complete.
In this case, however, finding time to record wasn’t the main obstacle, she says. It was finding a reason to.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got 10 new songs. Time to make a record,’” Brown says. “Part of that opinion comes from watching so many records go out on the market. The ones who succeed usually have a message you can fit in a teaspoon and deliver to people.
“There are so many distractions out there, so it’s a question of ‘How do you focus your message in a way that it’s going to be heard?’”
Considering the project in grander terms than just another notch on her recording belt, Brown says she tried to undo some fraction of the damage wrought upon the banjo by half a century of mislaid stereotypes.
Rather than play original instrumentals and vocal covers, which constituted the bulk of the work she and her genre-straddling progressive bluegrass/jazz quartet had done, she focused on music with which non-banjo listeners already were familiar.
Instead of fiery-paced bluegrass standards where the melody often gets lost in the virtuosic ornamentation, “The Song of the Banjo” focuses on covers of songs such as Michael Martin Murphey’s “Carolina in the Pines” and Orleans’ “Dance With Me” featuring guests artists such as The Indigo Girls, blues vocalist Keb’ Mo’ and ukulele savant Jake Shimabukuro.
“That [approach] creates a comfort zone for listeners,” she says. “Then … they can experience what’s so cool about the banjo through something they’re already familiar with.
“It’s kind of an ambitious goal. I mean, when you take the banjo out of its known territory, you run the risk of alienating the people who think the five-string banjo should just play bluegrass music. You lose the choir and then you never find new people to preach to. That’s the risk.”
Tonight, Dec. 17, the Alison Brown Quartet will perform at Barking Legs Theater. The concert marks Brown’s first appearance in Chattanooga since her guest performance with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera during last year’s “Home for the Holidays” Pops concert.
“I’m just looking forward to coming back to Chattanooga,” she says. “We had so much fun last year.”
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
If you go
› What: Alison Brown Quartet
› When: 7:30 p.m. today, Dec. 17
› Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.
› Admission: $20
› Phone: 423-624-5347
› Artist website: alisonbrown.com
› Venue website: barkinglegs.org
2015: “The Song of the Banjo”
2009: “The Company You Keep”
2005: “Stolen Moments”
2000: “Fair Weather”
1998: “Out of the Blue
1996: “Alison Brown Quartet”
1994: “Look Left”
1992: “Twilight Motel”
1990: “Simple Pleasures”