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She got her start in Uncle Earl, an all-female bluegrass and old-timey combo, before going solo—at which point she added Chinese folk into the mix. Washburn spent a summer in China while she was in college, and since then she's been a regular visitor; in 2006 her Sparrow Quartet became the first American group to tour Tibet, and two years later they performed at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. On the group's self-titled 2008 album, Washburn expertly mixes American old-timey music with traditional Chinese and Kazakh material, drawing out similarities between the banjo and the Chinese pipa.
City of Refuge finds her pushing in another direction. Working with superb Seattle producer Tucker Martine, Washburn expertly transforms all sorts of string music—from Appalachian hillbilly folk to orchestrations by Jeremy Kittell of Turtle Island Quartet—into beautiful, sophisticated acoustic pop, delivering her pretty melodies in a voice that reminds me of a less ethereal Emmylou Harris. A huge cast of support musicians contributes to the record, from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to Mongolian string band Hanggai (who are playing this summer as part of the Music Without Borders series in Millennium Park) to Chris Funk of the Decemberists (on guitar and dulcimer) to Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket (on pedal steel and electric guitar). Credit goes to both Washburn and Martine for making what could've been an overloaded mess into something meticulously pitched, eloquent, and utterly lovely. There are traces of old-school country, gospel, and Chinese folk, but this lustrous record is more accessible and hooky than anything she's done. I've only had time to listen to the album a few times, but with each spin I like it more. Washburn fronts a five-piece band Saturday night at Schubas; below you can listen to "Dreams of Nectar" from the new album.
Abigail Washburn, "Dreams of Nectar":
Alexandra Grimal, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian, Owls Talk (Hôte Marge)
The Cookers, Warriors (Jazz Legacy Productions)
Lou Johnson, Incomparable Soul Vocalist (Kent)
Sleigh Bells, Treats (N.E.E.T./Mom & Pop)
Jacob Greenberg, Solitary (New Focus)