Puremusic: How is your morning going?
Abigail Washburn: It's good. I have (cellist) Ben Sollee here. We're rehearsing for--hey, Ben, play him a cool cello lick. [blue grassy cello comes through the phone]
AW: We're rehearsing for our first festival gig tomorrow, finally pulling together all the loose ends. We've rehearsed three or four times, I guess, but we've only had a day here and there. Now we've got to buckle down and get it all right.
PM: But didn't you guys just come from Telluride, too?
AW: Well, Ben wasn't there. I did a "tweener" as a solo artist. But it was Uncle Earl that was on the mainstage that time. [a tweener is a short set between sets]
PM: I see. So you do gigs as a solo artist as well?
AW: I do. I can't always have Ben there. But Ben and I are going to start being on the road together here a bunch, because I'll be touring just behind my solo project, so--
PM: Wow, and you'll tour as a duo. Well, I was going to save that question for a little later. But he's remarkable.
AW: Ain't he, though?
PM: Because, in a very tangible way to my ears, he's really tying the whole thing together.
AW: Oh, I agree. And well, the truth is, that's what I wanted. Being one of the producers of the album, the most important instrument for me to have on the album--other than the banjo, of course--was the cello. I said, "What I really want to do is tour with a cello." So we arranged the album so the cello was a really important voice.
PM: While we're on the subject of Ben, why don't you tell us where you ran into him and what kind of a guy he is.
AW: Here, I'm going to sit next to Ben while I talk about him. Ben and I met through our friend Rayna. Ben also plays in a band with Otis Taylor, who's really great.
PM: Sure, a blues artist, yeah.
AW: And Rayna--she and I are both in Uncle Earl--she played some gigs with Otis Taylor, and played fiddle on his new album, as well, and toured a bit with Ben. So she knew about Ben, and I'd been saying to people for the past year that I needed the right cellist for the album, and then hopefully to tour with. So I had my eye out. And there were names being thrown around--Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas, et cetera--but none of it felt quite right. And then Rayna told me about Ben. I called Ben. I said, "Hey, would you come down in a couple weeks and do pre-production for my album and sort of see how it goes?" And he came down, and was great.
PM: Came down from where? Is he a Boston guy?
AW: No. He's in Kentucky--he studies cello performance at the University of Louisville.
PM: I see.
AW: Yeah, he's amazing. Twenty-one, right, Ben?
PM: The quiet or the effusive type?
AW: Both. He's perfect.
PM: We reviewed Song of the Traveling Daughter in the August issue. I think it's a really great record.
PM: Can you attempt a sketch of how the recording came about, what bricks fell into place first, or how the whole project came to be? For instance, what came first, the label or the record?
AW: Well, I'll give you just a little bit more background before that. I never expected to be a musician. I never really expected to have this career. But I had a fated experience. I was traveling from Vermont down to Nashville doing a six-week road trip before I was going to move back to China to continue the ex-pat lifestyle. I had just taken an exam to be an official Chinese student in the university. That's what I was planning to do.
Anyway, I was on this road trip down to Nashville. And I stopped at the IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Award Conference, because I'd heard about it, and I'd just started playing the banjo. And I thought, "Ooh, this would be really interesting. I'll go back to China and tell everybody about the IBMA and what bluegrass is like." And I was standing there in the hallway, and I met up with a couple of other young people who were there, Amanda Kowalski, Megan Gregory, and Casey Driessen. We just sat down and started playing together, because we were all young, and it was kind of exciting, and we all seemed like similar spirits. And I really couldn't play much. I was sort of like, "What's that chord, what's that chord?" But I knew a few chords, so I could play on a couple songs. But mostly I just sang, and sang harmony with Amanda and Megan. And basically, by the end of the night, we were offered a record deal with Sugar Hill Records.
PM: And who from Sugar Hill was there that made that offer?
AW: Well, I mean, it wasn't a complete offer. See, the thing about IBMA is that a lot of the people from Sugar Hill come there. They have a showcase, and they're really scouting heavily at that. So they had everybody from the company there. And basically, I didn't know it, but we had all these people watching us before long, and I wasn't used to a crowd at all. I mean, when I sang, I was just singing with friends or hanging out. And so here's this big crowd, and it ended up that it was mostly Sugar Hill people, and they were all just buzzing about it, and they just loved it. And here were these people I just met. And they wanted, in particular, Megan and I, the two vocalists who were singing a bunch, to come down to Nashville and cut a demo and have them circulate it in the company. And we did cut the demo, it ended up in a record deal offer a few weeks later.
PM: What's Megan's last name, again?
AW: Megan Gregory, a wonderful singer and fiddler. And we ended up not taking the deal, largely because there was a disparity in our skills at our instruments. She's a bluegrass player, and she had a great band going--she's in the band Meridian--and she really wanted to do that.
PM: So you guys didn't take that deal.
AW: We didn't take it. But it definitely answered some questions for me, because there was a part of me questioning whether or not to go to China. I had a bunch of great relationships going in the States, and it seemed like there were good things happening on a lot of levels for me here. When I was offered this record deal, I thought maybe I should stick around Nashville for a while and just see what happens. Because I actually had this great fortune after that weekend. After Googling "Nashville" and "Chinese," I made one call to the Chinese Friendship Association in Nashville. This woman picked up, and she gave me the number of a guy she thought might be looking for an employee. It ended up that he was, and I became the first employee of a biotech company that was based in Shanghai and Nashville, on my way to Nashville.
AW: Yeah. And that job lasted maybe eight months. It was a really good way to be in Nashville. Every couple of weeks I'd go in and cut a song for a demo or something like that. I was just trying to understand the industry a little bit and see if it was a good place for me. And I just kept having good fortune, is all I can say. Like the stars were aligned, or something--because Sugar Hill kept their eye on me, and said, "If you ever come up with your own solo demo, we'd love to hear it." And Uncle Earl found me at the Folk Alliance, which happened to be in Nashville that year. I never would have gone to the Folk Alliance had it not been around the corner.
AW: But I went, and Uncle Earl saw me and they said, "Hey, would you come play a couple of weddings with us in a few of weeks?" And I did, and before you know it I was just sort of in the band.
PM: And they wanted you as a banjo player or as a singer mostly?
AW: Mostly a singer. But I also played the banjo, and they just had faith that I'd get better. continue