Abigail Washburn likes her music like she likes her soup

CorrespondentFebruary 7, 2013 

Abigail Washburn.

COURTESY OF FOREIGN CHILDREN RECORDS — COURTESY OF Foreign Children Records

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    Who: Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch with Wu Fei

    When: 8 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill

    Cost: $10- $89

    Details: 919-843-3333

It’s not surprising that Abigail Washburn’s life is fodder for a play that will open in New York next month. It’s a life that’s had surprising twists.

For instance, while growing up in Illinois, the now-singer/songwriter and banjo player was never much of a musician.

“It wasn’t something I focused on,” she says in a call from Chattanooga. “My parents played the radio, but music was never an obsession or something that I thought I could call a career.”

Everything changed when Washburn visited China in 1996. She immersed herself in Chinese culture, particularly music.

“Something opened up for me,” says Washburn, who will perform in Chapel Hill on Saturday. “I started to explore and I found some special things. I found the voice of Doc Watson, and I embraced his music.”

Washburn, 33, also found the clawhammer banjo and started writing songs. “I was curious and creative. One thing led to another.”

Suddenly, the soft-spoken Washburn couldn’t get enough of folk or bluegrass. “It’s funny because I was far from home but I wanted to find my way back, and I did in terms of music.”

Washburn consumed a healthy dose of American music but she also became enamored with Chinese opera.

“You can enjoy many different types of music,” she says. “I think that’s something more Americans should think about.”

Washburn returned to the States after the turn of the century and crafted her first album, “Song of The Traveling Daughter,” which dropped in 2005. The disc is full of upbeat, jazzy folk, loaded with strong melodies.

Washburn took a big step when she embarked on her next endeavor. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet released a quirky album; the disc is an amalgam of two cultures. Chinese lyrics and American rhythms work well together. On it, Washburn easily moves from Chinese folk to American gospel.

“You don’t have to repeat yourself,” she says. “I think it’s more interesting to go from one place to a very different place, and that’s what I did song to song with that album.”

Her latest album, “City of Refuge,” which dropped in 2011, is another ambitious album, combining folk, blues, rock and old-timey music. The album features Wu Fei’s gorgeous guzheng (a harp-like instrument) play.

“I took another step with that album,” Washburn says. “I love what Wu brings. (Washburn collaborator) Kai (Welch) and I are excited to work with him. We have some new songs that I like to call the Wu Force. The new songs sound like kung fu Appalachian indie folk rock. I like to mix it up. I feel like my kind of music is a big pot of different spices. It’s a soup with all kinds of ingredients in it.”

The Nashville resident isn’t sure when she will record her next album but she is knee deep into a new project – maternity. She is six months pregnant with her first child with fellow banjo picker Bela Fleck.

“My husband and I are so excited about having our boy,” Washburn says. “It’s a huge deal. We can’t wait.”

Will their child pick up the banjo before he handles a spoon? “He might have to,” she says. “We have a special thing. We have so much fun playing banjo together. We just sit there and communicate in a manner that, at times, I think we only understand.”

The soon-to-be-produced play, which chronicles Washburn’s adventures in China, is as yet untitled.

“Just like our son,” Washburn says. “Both will have a name. I just haven’t gotten around to that yet. There’s other stuff that’s on my mind right now.”

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