Sunday, July 9, 2000
Chicago When Alison Brown says her music label, Compass Records, represents the triumph of art over commerce, she is uniquely qualified to talk about both.
She's a record company executive, MBA, former investment banker, guitarist, banjo player, band leader (the Alison Brown Quartet) and band member (New Grange).
Her new album, "Fair Weather," is a return to her bluegrass roots after a period in which she veered into jazz. Oh, and she was pre-med at Harvard University before the specter of organic chemistry convinced her that her future lay elsewhere.
"I decided to go to business school because I had this notion that there was some way to combine business with my interest in music," she says by phone from her Nashville office.
There sure was.
In 1995, Brown started Compass, which she runs with her husband and bass player, Garry West, from "a little pink cottage a safe distance from Music Row" in Nashville.
Compass has turned into one of the more interesting small labels. It has released jazz, pop, rock and country albums, and now, with "Fair Weather," bluegrass.
But before Compass, Brown spent two years in the public finance division of Smith Barney in San Francisco, followed by three years touring as the banjo player in bluegrass sensation Alison Krauss' band.
"It was a circuitous path," she says, in something of an understatement.
Flatt & Scruggs-inspired
Brown, now 37, took guitar lessons as a child in Connecticut, but her world turned when she heard a Flatt & Scruggs album for the first time.
At 10 she started taking banjo lessons. At 12, her family moved to San Diego.
Far from the hollows of Appalachia where the music was born, San Diego had a thriving bluegrass scene. At its epicenter was a Shakey's pizzeria where the city's bluegrass club met.
There Brown met other young musicians, including Vince Gill, who went on to country music stardom, and Stuart Duncan, now probably the most sought-after fiddle player in Nashville.
"There was so much going on. It's surprising to a lot of folks that bluegrass is so popular in Southern California. I think it has something to do with the migration of people from the Dust Bowl," Brown says.
Brown and Duncan recorded an album while she was in high school, but she wasn't thinking of music as a career.
"My parents always encouraged me to think of music as an avocation," she says. "I was supposed to go to med school."
After giving up the idea of a career in medicine, Brown turned to business.
"Even when I left Smith Barney my thought was to take a little time off and then rewrite my resume and go out and find another corporate job. If Alison Krauss hadn't called and offered me a gig with her band, that's what I would have done," Brown says.
After playing with Krauss, Brown joined Michelle Shocked's band.
"That's when my horizons broadened," she says.
"Growing up, I listened to mostly bluegrass, to the point that a lot of the pop hits from the '70s and '80s that everybody else knows, I really don't," she says. "My dad played classical music and (jazz guitarist) Joe Pass. The other stuff came from working with Michelle and then Garry West.
"When I'm playing just for fun it's as likely to be some jazz standard or some Wes Montgomery tune that I'm working on."
Balancing art and commerce
Mike Marshall, who plays mandolin with Brown in New Grange, calls her "one of the great banjo players of our time."
"There's a beautiful calmness in her playing while burning your face off. She just stands there politely like a lady and rips it to shreds," he says.
Brown's eclecticism shows in Compass' roster of more than 40 artists, which includes New Orleans' venerable jazz band Astral Project, British pop goddess Eddi Reader, folk-rockers Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love and Congolese guitarist Samba Ngo.
"The common unifying thread I guess is our taste. We don't put out any music that we don't really love. It's sort of art over commerce in that sense," Brown says.
"I think of the audience for Compass Records as being people who listen to National Public Radio and have a sense that there's music out there that they would really like but they just don't know where to turn."
Brown seems to enjoy juggling the demands of art and commerce, but says she starts each week feeling as if she's two days behind.
Marshall isn't sure how she does it.
"To play the capitalist music game and yet still deal with playing her instrument, it's defying gravity," he says.