Alison Brown achieved an international reputation as a banjo player by pushing the instrument out of its familiar Appalachian settings and into new musical territory. Through four albums on the renowned Vanguard Records label and one on her own Compass Records, Brown composed and played her way into the affections of fans of jazz-hued acoustic music with a unique voice on a relatively unexplored instrument. On her newest record, however, Brown brings her banjo back to its bluegrass roots and to her own musical beginnings.
Many bluegrass fans are aware that Brown's first marks on the national scene came when she was asked by Alison Krauss to join her band Union Station in 1989. Fewer are aware that Brown honed her chops as a teenager in Southern California with some of the best pickers and singers to emerge in the subsequent decades. She met fiddler Stuart Duncan as a 12-year-old. They performed extensively together and sometimes sat in with country superstar Vince Gill and Gene Libbea, now bass player with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. "The San Diego Bluegrass Club used to meet once a month at the Shakey's Pizza Palace," she recalls. "They had a stage, and people would jam out in the parking lot. And that's where I started getting to play with other people."
In the summer of 1978, she traveled the country with Duncan and his father, playing festivals and contests. A first place finish at the Canadian National Banjo Championship helped her land a one-night gig at the Grand Ole Opry. And around the time Brown graduated from high school, she and Duncan recorded a duo album entitled Pre-Sequel for Ridge Runner Records.
Brown's journey to a professional music career then took a detour. She attended Harvard, studying history and literature, then UCLA, where she secured an MBA. That led to two years with the public finance division of Smith Barney in San Francisco. After taking a hiatus to return to composing and recording music, Brown assembled the material for her solo debut. While it heralded a new voice on the banjo, Simple Pleasures, also owed much to the California-based jazz/bluegrass hybrid sound pioneered by mandolinist David Grisman, who produced the album. Around the same time, Brown joined Krauss for a successful three-year run that included a place on Krauss' Grammy-winning I've Got That Old Feeling album, as well as bluegrass music's highest accolade for an instrumentalist: the International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year in 1991.
Simple Pleasures earned a Grammy nomination, and Brown went on to make a total of four records for Vanguard as a bandleader and composer. Her most recent jazz-tinged release, Out of the Blue on Compass, featured the smooth sound of her custom electric nylon-string banjo; together, her five solo projects represent a substantial musical evolution. On the strength of these projects, Brown has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, National Public Radio's All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and BET's Jazz Central, as well as in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Dirty Linen and Acoustic Musician. Stereo Review wrote that "Alison Brown has raised the art of banjo playing to a higher calling," while Billboard has praised her music's "unique sonic signature and inescapable beauty."
In the early 1990s, while touring as band leader for Michelle Shocked, she and her quartet's bass player Garry West found themselves in Australia, where an opportunity arose to act as North American distributors for Natural Symphonies, a world music label. Brown and West had been looking for a way to start a record company, and their initial company, Small World Music, ultimately built the business foundation for Compass Records, launched in 1995 in Nashville.
Compass has been widely praised for its eclectic and high quality catalog of singer/songwriter, pop, jazz, and world music. The label has been less emphatic to this point in the arena of bluegrass, but now that changes with the release of Brown's Fair Weather, a multi-hued collection of neo-classic songs and original instrumentals. Anchored by Brown's technically rich but also highly musical banjo, the album pays equivalent homage to the Flatt & Scruggs tradition and to the modern Dawg music of David Grisman. The instrumentation features some of the best bluegrass instrumentalists and singers working today, including Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, David Grier, Vince Gill, Tony Rice and Missy Raines. Also in this esteemed company are Compass recording artists Matt Flinner, Todd Phillips, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger.
Brown wrote eight instrumental numbers for Fair Weather, including the speedy opening cut, Late On Arrival and the tasty Deep Gap, which features Brown in a rare appearance on flatpicked guitar. Brown also invited vocalist friends for a creative selection of bluegrass song adaptations. Bush sings Elvis Costello's Every Day I Write the Book. Claire Lynch borrows doubly from the Compass catalog, singing Hummingbird, a song by Boo Hewerdine and performed by label-mate Eddi Reader on a recent album. And the mellifluous Tim O'Brien sings Everybody's Talkin', an old favorite from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. That track, incidentally, features nearly the same lineup as Brown's most recent band effort, a new-acoustic ensemble called NewGrange, with Anger, Marshall, and Phillips.
For the many fans first introduced to Brown through her work with Alison Krauss, Fair Weather will mark a welcome opportunity to hear Brown as both bandleader and instrumental virtuoso in a bluegrass setting. Moreover, by bringing together great songs, great players, and a spirit of generous collaboration, the album embodies the values that have driven Brown in her career and that have cultivated wide respect for Compass as a leader among independent record labels.