If American old-time music is about taking earlier, simpler ways of life and music-making as one’s model, Abigail Washburn has proven herself to be a bracing revelation to that tradition. She — a singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based clawhammer banjo player — is every bit as interested in the present and the future as she is in the past, and every bit as attuned to the global as she is to the local. Abigail pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, and the results feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody’s ever heard before.
One fateful day over 20 years ago, Washburn was miraculously offered a record deal in the halls of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) convention in Kentucky which changed her trajectory from becoming a lawyer in China to a traveling folk musician. Since then, Abigail has been recording and touring a continuous stream of music. Her music ranges from the “all-g’earl” string band sound of Uncle Earl to her bi-lingual solo release Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005), to the lush “chamber roots” sound of the Sparrow Quartet, to the rhythms, sounds and stories of Afterquake (2008), her fundraiser album for Sichuan earthquake victims created in collaboration with Shanghai Restoration Project. The New York Times praised her 2011 release, City of Refuge, written with collaborator Kai Welch, saying the songs “mingle Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” As a duo with her husband — 16-time Grammy award winning banjo virtuoso, Béla Fleck — Abigail has recorded two albums: a self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and Echo in the Valley (Rounder 2017). Her most recent record is a self-titled debut collaboration with composer and guzheng virtuoso, Wu Fei, which sonically blends traditional Chinese and Appalachian folk tunes (Smithsonian Folkways 2020). In 2023, Abigail and Béla premiered their first collaborative song cycle for full symphony orchestra, commissioned and performed by the Colorado Symphony.
After realizing music has the power to unite and heal more meaningfully than policy, Abigail immersed herself in Chinese language and culture. She has toured China independently and regularly for over 20 years, including a month-long tour (Nov-Dec 2011) of China’s Silk Road supported by grants from the US Embassy, Beijing. Abigail, along with 24 other innovative and creative thinkers worldwide, was named a TED fellow and gave a talk at the 2012 TED Convention in Long Beach about building US-China relations through music. In March of 2013, she was commissioned by New York Voices and the NY Public Theater to write and debut a theatrical work titled Post-American Girl, which draws from her long standing relationship with China and addresses themes of expanding identity, cultural relativism, pilgrimage, the universal appeal of music and opening the heart big enough to fold it all in. Abigail is an Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University. Her efforts to share US music in China and Chinese music in the US exist within a hope that cultural understanding and the communal experience of beauty and sound will lead the way to a richer existence.
Abigail spends most of her time in Nashville caring for her two children, Juno and Theodore, and supporting Béla in his work and music. She serves on the school board, supports her local community, trains in equity practices and works to uplift local grassroots organizers. She is a board member of Unmanageable Arts, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to mobilize resources and build power for artists engaged in social change work. She folds in creative writing, banjo, Chinese-soap-opera-watching and flat-footing in between school pick ups, dinner prep and homework management. More creative output coming soon...
"A daring, definite talent, whose feel for the folk idiom results in moving material. Soulful is the word." — Wall Street Journal
"[Washburn is] something of an unofficial musical ambassador to China. She constructs cultural bridges, one note at a time." — CBS Sunday Morning
"A gifted clawhammer banjo player, a seraphic vocalist, and an uninhibited songwriter who sometimes writes songs in Mandarin." — The New Yorker
"A bizarre yet strangely compelling mix of banjo, traditional Chinese music, electronica and ... what? How does this even exist? Abigail Washburn might be an alien. But an incredibly talented alien." — Washington Post
"A wine snob might describe [her voice] as bearing notes of honey and vinegar, bourbon and bluegrass." — NPR Music
"Best kind of crossover — one that anyone can find comfort in." — Los Angeles Times
"Abigail Washburn pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, creating results that feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody's ever heard before." — NPR Ted Radio Hour
"Abigail Washburn is an important artist who continues to expand our ideas of what is musically possible." — No Depression
"A spare, ethereal style that might be dubbed 'back porch noir'." — Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Artwork for this site was created by ERICA HARRIS. Abigail commissioned this series of collages based off of prayers she whispered to Juno as an infant.