As an 18-year-old Colorado College freshman in the mid-1990s, Abigail Washburn never dreamed of becoming a professional musician, much less a one-woman movement to fuse Chinese folk with Appalachian bluegrass. That unlikely journey, Washburn says, began with a poster inviting students to "Study Chinese in China."
"I just thought that would be a fascinating thing to do, so I worked at a burrito stand for half the summer and went to China for the other half," she recalls. "I ended up becoming really obsessed with Chinese culture."
Washburn went on to become one of the school's first Asian Studies graduates, and eventually planned to study law at Beijing University. But after a few years of government and consulting work, Washburn was ready for something else entirely. She decided to teach herself the banjo after hearing Doc Watson's plaintive performance of "Shady Grove."
"The banjo is very new to me, but I've been singing for a long time," explains Washburn. "In college, I was involved in several choirs as we ll as a women's a cappella group. And even when I worked in government in Vermont for three years, I was in the local black gospel choir ... Yeah, there aren't that many black people in Vermont, but it was based on the tradition of black gospel music."
Ultimately, Beijing lost out to Nashville, where Washburn worked on her own songs and gave a demo to Flecktones leader Bla Fleck at a party. Despite his 30-year head start on the instrument, Fleck was impressed with the beauty of Washburn's playing and went on to produce her 2005 solo album, Song of the Traveling Daughter.
That same year, Fleck joined violinist Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee in Washburn's Sparrow Quartet. The group, which has since played everywhere from MerleFest to Coachella to Beijing's Summer Olympics, released its eponymous full-length debut last May.
"I am eternally grateful that such amazingly talented musicians have been drawn to play music with me," says Washburn. (She claims she and Fleck have yet to play "Dueling Banjos" together.) But even with the group's tasteful instrumental prowess, Washburn's bilingual vocal skills immediately draw listeners' attention.
"Singing Chinese songs is a total delight because it takes me to places with my voice that I wouldn't usually go," says Washburn, noting the transition to the relative pitch of Chinese music does require some adjustment for Western musicians.
In addition to the sounds of Beijing and bluegrass, Washburn's "homecoming" performance will also showcase an emerging European influence, courtesy of 20th-century Hungarian composer Bla Bartk.
"That's a direction I've been going in," she says of the second Bla in her life. "It's kind of like Bartk goes to Kentucky."
Which is not to say that Washburn is forgetting her roots. She says she even has a "Chinese girl band," though not of the Pussycat Dolls variety.
"They're all professors at the Chinese Conservatory of Music who play traditional Chinese instruments, and we play gigs together when I go to Beijing," she says. "I don't think it's the right commercial project to put out next, but I would love to include them on the next album in some way."