Not Just For Car Chases

Alison Brown elevates the banjo


She's been called one of the greatest banjo players of our time, and "endlessly creative." Grammy Award-winning banjo player Alison Brown was in the Treasure ValleyOn Tuesday, October 24 for a concert at the Nampa Civic Center.

Brown took up the banjo when she was just 10, and played at the Grand Ole Opry when she was still a teen. But she didn't think she could make a living in music, so she studied history and literature at Harvard and then went on to get an MBA at UCLA. After two years as an investment banker at Smith Barney, she took time off to write music. Alison Kraus invited her to tour with her band Union Station and Brown never looked back.

Brown is the recipient of a Grammy Award for the track "Leaving Cottondale," featuring Bela Fleck, on her 2000 album, Fair Weather. She has been nominated for two other Grammys. She and her husband, bassist Garry West, run a music label, Compass Records. Her tunes have even been used several times as the "wake-up" music for the astronauts on the space shuttle.

BW caught up with her as she was driving to UCLA to take part in a panel discussion about the music business.

How did you get into the banjo?

I heard Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Banjo album when I was a kid and just really loved that kind of bluegrass sound, so that's really what I pursued, that three finger style.

What a gift to know your passion at such a young age.

I agree. There's so many people out there who make it well into adulthood and still haven't really discovered a passion. So I feel really fortunate with that. But I never thought my passion would be something I would be able to do beyond talking about it at cocktail parties. In fact, I'm still surprised that I get to do this. There's not that much of a precedent for banjo-led bands out there making any kind of a living. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is obviously the one great example. After that, there's a big wide-open gap.

Explain the Earl Scruggs style.

Nobody had ever done a three-finger style of pickin' before ... You use your thumb and index finger and middle finger and work basically out of what's called a roll pattern, sort of like an arpeggio. When you hear "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (the background music for Bonnie and Clyde) or [the theme for] Beverly Hillbillies, it's that sound. That sound is what Earl Scruggs created. It's sort of your car chase, bank robbery kind of sound.

You've said you aim for a "warmer" sound. What does that mean?

Banjo is like a drum. You can make so many adjustments that you can really affect the tone of the instrument a lot. I set my instrument up so that it's warmer and fuller sounding rather than the harsh, kind of bright sound that you usually associate with bluegrass banjo.

I've also heard you describe it as a more feminine style.

When I write music and arrange it, I like to have all the instruments have an equal voice. And I've noticed a lot of times when you play with guys that their focus is "one-upsmanship" with regard to solos and trying to claim as much sonic real estate for themselves. My goal in playing is not so much to show up the next guy as to play with the next guy. And I think generally that's a more female perspective.

How in the heck do you get your fingers to move that quickly?

You just do it for a long time. I mean, I've been playing banjo for a long time! And actually, moving your fingers that quickly isn't that hard. Moving them that quickly in good time and with good tone is the real trick.

A lot of it is the right kind of relaxation, too. You have to really have your hand be relaxed to get it to go that fast. But there are a lot of people who can play really fast who are still terrible. It's not necessarily the mark of a good banjo player.

Are there many women playing banjo?

There are more than there used to be. And there are some pretty high-profile ones, although they aren't instrumentalists first and foremost. I'm thinking of Emily Robison from The Dixie Chicks and Emily Saliers in Indigo Girls. In the bluegrass realm, though, it's still pretty unusual, and I don't know of another woman who's solely an instrumentalist.

Do you have girls come up to you because you're their inspiration?

Sure, sometimes. But not as often as I'd like, because I think there need to be more women playing the banjo.

Why did you start the record label?

My husband Garry and I both believe that the music we do, which is a lot of roots music, Celtic music, folk stuff; it's music that needs to be heard. It needs to be made available. It's artistic work of great integrity. As much as I feel that banjo is my passion, I feel that helping other artists get their music out there is part of my calling.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the business?

Well, the real challenge is putting the music in the hands of the people who are interested in it. So distribution and the gatekeepers, whether it's press or radio--when you have to try to get through those folks to get your music to the consumer it's frustrating.

So if I had a magic wand, it would be the e-mail addresses of all the people that I know are interested, or would be interested if they knew about it! Then I could just communicate with them directly.

Bypass the system.

Exactly. I think that's kind of the direction the music business is going anyway. Because retailers aren't supporting anything beyond hit music.

What was it like to win a Grammy?

It was kind of nice to get it done, so you know you don't have to! It's another one of those experiences that really validates what you're doing.

Do you get involved at all in political or social movements?

I don't really. Bluegrass music, which is the music I come out of, is probably much more apolitical than folk music, even though I guess it's a kind of folk music. And since I've never been a singer, I've never kind of expressed myself, and it's harder to express your thoughts through instrumental music.

For more about Alison Brown and her music, visit


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