Pickin' and grinnin'

Banjo innovator Alison Brown enjoying success

Sunday, August 17, 2003

For a gal born in Connecticut and bred in Southern California, Alison Brown sure has a lot of Nashville bluegrass in her blood.

But it wouldn't be fair -- or accurate -- to pigeonhole the Grammy Award-winning banjo player.

Though one of her most recent albums with the Alison Brown Quartet, "Fair Weather" (2000), marks a return to her bluegrass roots, Brown is known for stretching her banjo strings beyond their Appalachian beginnings to play music that fuses traditional with folk, jazz, Celtic and Latin flavors.

"It's a real hybrid," Brown said Tuesday during a phone interview from Ireland, where the quartet was touring. "It's true, I came out of playing bluegrass music, but when I started to write my own music, it seemed to come out with a lot of jazz influences and Celtic and Latin influences as well. It's, I guess, a reflection of all the different things I've listened to and liked."

The eclecticism isn't something Brown pursued deliberately.

"But it's important in the sense that when people refer to us as a bluegrass band it makes me uncomfortable just because we're not really, and I don't want anyone to be disappointed thinking that we are," she said.

So let that be a warning.

Brown and quartet members John Burr on piano, Garry West on bass and Kendrick Freeman on drums are opening the Lied Center's 10th anniversary season on Friday. A birthday celebration -- complete with balloons, face painting, clowns and prize giveaways -- precedes the free concert, which starts at 7 p.m. on the Lied Center lawn.

Brown began her solo career a decade ago after graduating from Harvard and UCLA and then working for three years as an investment banker -- perhaps a strange pit stop for a professional musician, but "that's what everybody was doing," she said.

While taking time off from the business world to write music, Brown hooked up with Alison Kraus and Union Station and then Michelle Shocked.

"Things have just sort of conspired to keep me from having to go back to the real world," she said.

Brown doesn't come from a particularly musical family. Her parents took guitar lessons ("They were kind of inspired by the '60s folk revival," she said.) She followed suit, taking up guitar at 8, banjo at 10.

"I started taking guitar lessons from a guy who was also a banjo player," Brown said. "He brought over a Flat & Scruggs record, and that's when I first heard bluegrass music, and I just really wanted to learn how to play it."

She's not sure why.

"I just really liked the sound of the instrument," she says. "I think that if it's possible for an instrument to choose who plays it, the banjo chose me to play it."

The marriage has been harmonious. Her debut album, "Simple Pleasures" (1992), earned a Grammy nomination. She's been touring with her quartet since 1993, the same year Brown and husband/producer/bassist West launched Compass Records.

"Fair Weather" was nominated for the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy award in 2001, and the album's single "Leaving Cottondale" took home the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The quartet released "Replay" in the fall of that year.

In 1991, Brown became the first woman to be named Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Assn.

"We're really looking forward to coming to Kansas," Brown said. "I've heard about Lawrence, Kansas, forever, and I don't think I've ever been there."