The Synthesis of Abigail Washburn

Music Features Abigail Washburn
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Abigail Washburn has been called a folk singer and an old-time banjo picker, which are both accurate but not quite apt. In truth, she is perhaps better described as a world musician: Grounded in American Appalachian traditions, she also incorporates Asian and European influences into her music, often setting the Chinese erhu (two-string violin) and guzheng (zither) against her clawhammer banjo.

This global synthesis of styles and sounds defines Washburn’s second solo album, City of Refuge. “We ended up bringing in this big cast of characters to be part of the record,” says Washburn,” “people who didn’t know each other and had never even dabbled in similar genres.” In addition to indie musicians like The Decemberists’ Chris Funk and producer Tucker Martine, Washburn corralled jazz guiarist Bill Frisell, members of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Mongolian throat-singers Hanggai.

Anchored in that sense of collaboration and experimentation, City of Refuge is musically adventurous but remains anchored in Washburn’s probing lyrics about refugees and misfits. She co-wrote the album with Nashville native Kai Welch, formerly of indie-pop troupe Tommy and the Whale. “We realized from the start that the product of our efforts would be something very different for both of us,” he says. “Our music comes from many of the same basic places in our characters. It was thrilling to find out how much we had in common in spite of our stylistic differences.”

And that, explains Washburn, is the whole idea behind City of Refuge: “To help us all feel like there is a place for us—that’s a huge piece of why I make music.”