On her way to studying law in Beijing University in China, Abigail Washburn took a small side trip down southeast from Illinois with a new banjo. While in Tennessee, she sat down in a hallway with a few other girls to play a few of the songs she knew, and got a record deal and an invitation to join a band. Those girls were Uncle Earl, an all female Bluegrass group (fans are called g’Earlfriends) filled with virtuosos. Lawyering looking dim in comparison, she toured with Uncle Earl, who released two records with Washburn on board, including Waterloo (2007), produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. In 2009 she left the group to follow solo pursuits, including her venture with The Sparrow Quartet (pictured above) which includes Abigail Washburn (banjo and vocals), Béla Fleck (banjo), Casey Driessen (violin), and Ben Sollee (cello). They make some really fantastic music. But Washburn’s brand new second solo album City of Refuge, produced by Tucker Martine, with contributions from My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, The Decemberist’s Chris Funk, Turtle Island String Quartet’s Jeremy Kittel and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig, is the real reason for this post.
If ever there was an heir apparent to Emmylou Harris’s throne, Washburn’s City of Refuge is the scepter touch to her shoulders. Throughout the record, she rises with greater and greater purpose and more regal decor surrounding her as each second passes. Washburn is primarily a clawhammer banjo player, and Tucker Martine shines a spotlight on her brilliant ability on each song, but there are SO MANY tiny little touches courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch and the other contributors that make this excellent hybrid of Bluegrass/Chinese Folk/Indie sound simultaneously full to bursting AND not ever enough. Title track “City of Refuge” creeps into the room with Washburn’s whisper and proceeds to gallop over every dirty spot, cleaning and pushing beautiful things to the surface.
Immediately after, “Bring Me My Queen” sits down on the floor, and cultivates evergreen forests around it, trees shooting to the sky and weaving vines throughout the stars.
I might be getting too carried away with the personified metaphors, but honestly, my words will never be enough to describe how FANTASTIC this record is. I’m serious. I tend to get over-excited about things, so I’ve sat on this record for 2 months, listening over and over again, searching for any sort of reason NOT to call this a wonderful, wonderful album. After 8 weeks of searching, I can’t find a-one. “Corner Girl” dips it’s big toe into slight Chinese orchestral string styles, “Dreams of Nectar” gives Washburn’s voice and cultural influences a chance to stretch, and “Devine Bell” gets down and dirty with toe-tapping Bluegrass. “Burn Thru” begins with serrating guitar anthems, and gives way to a full choir of Abigail Washburn’s Kai Welch’s closed-eye and soaring longings.
My favorite though, is “Bright Morning Stars”. I won’t even TRY to describe it, I’ve blathered on long enough about everything.
PLEASE go and buy Abigail Washburn’s City of Refuge. It’s worth it.