Friends in far-flung places

Have banjo, will travel: Though some audiences have to “overcome” Abilgail Washburn’s banjo, the singer-songwriter has recently trekked the Silk Road through Mongolia and collaborated with fellow musician Kai Welch on a surprisingly pop-savvy album. Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins.
Have banjo, will travel: Though some audiences have to “overcome” Abilgail Washburn’s banjo, the singer-songwriter has recently trekked the Silk Road through Mongolia and collaborated with fellow musician Kai Welch on a surprisingly pop-savvy album. Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins.

Lots of bands hit the road — it's what touring bands do. Not so many hit the Silk Road, that storied stretch of trade routes that connects Europe to Western Asia. But that's where singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn and her band The Village headed last fall. The group spent a month traveling the ancient byways on a U.S. State Department-funded trip that started in Mongolia.

Though the Silk Road Tour (overseen by the Chinese Cultural Bureau) stuck mainly to the cities, there was plenty of opportunity for cross-cultural exploration. "Every day we'd show up in a new town and right away I'd say to the local Chinese Cultural Bureau attaché, 'Can we please collaborate with somebody local?'" says Washburn. She's been studying Chinese language and traveling to that country for the past 15 years; since her first solo album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, she's incorporated Chinese sounds and lyrics into her Appalachian-inspired claw-hammer banjo playing.

In Mongolia, Washburn and the Village found themselves "every single night, before the show, for several hours, rehearsing with people and cultures we were encountering for the very first time." They performed with Mongolian horse-head cello players, a throat singer, a nine-member all-girl classical Han band and a high mountain singer. "There's a lot of commonality between the old Appalachian mountain singing and what you hear in the mountains of Gansu province in China," says Washburn.

If it seems like a long way from Mongolia to Black Mountain (where Washburn plays this week to benefit Lake Eden Arts Festival outreach programs LEAF in Schools & Streets and LEAF International), the musician takes a small-world approach. Her Silk Road Tour “was right in line with LEAF values, which is probably the reason I was so eager to do something as a benefit for that group — because I feel like I fit in," she says. (Worth noting: Since 2006, LEAF International has started music programs in eight countries. In 2006, Washburn was the first American to lead a music and culture mission to Tibet.)

Last October marked her second time performing at LEAF, which she describes as "a utopia" (in fact, Washburn likes the festival so much that she invited her Oregon-based parents to fly to N.C. for the event). After a special acoustic performance with songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch at the LEAF barn, Washburn approached Performing Arts Director Billy Jack Sinkovic about a future collaboration. Out of that sprang the LEAF Benefit show, at which Washburn will play with Welch, students of The Learning Community (as directed by The Green Grass Cloggers) and fiddler Casey Driessen.

Driessen, now based in Asheville, was a member of The Sparrow Quartet with Washburn, banjo player Bela Fleck (Washburn's husband) and cellist Ben Sollee. That group played LEAF's main stage in 2008; the White Horse concert will be the first time Washburn and Driessen have shared a stage since their Sparrow Quartet days.

Currently, Washburn's main project is a duo with Welch, with whom she collaborated on last year's dynamic City of Refuge. That album seamlessly blends Washburn's folk roots and world travels with Welch's pop and indie-rock sensibilities.

In fact, the nuanced accessibility of Refuge has likely brought new audiences to Washburn's remarkable talent. She says that in some parts of the country, people have to overcome the banjo. "There's a lot of banjo hate out there," she jokes. But not in Western North Carolina. Here, she’s among kindred spirits. “My sense of exploration, idealism, inclusiveness and hope for the future, and the way that music and tradition inform my sense of the future — that's Asheville," she says.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch with Casey Driessen and more
what: Benefit for LEAF Outreach projects
where: White Horse
when: Thursday, Jan. 12 (7 p.m. $22 advance or $25 at the door. VIP tables are $160 and seat four. http://leafticketsales.org.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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