Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge

Videos by American Songwriter

Abigail Washburn
City of Refuge
[Rating: 4 stars]

In a word, Abigail Washburn’s City of Refuge shines. It is a folk-pastiche that draws on all of Washburn’s past successes and crafts them together into a lovely and sometimes mysterious work of art. The album achieves this success, I think, by maintaining the balance that Washburn has achieved on those previous releases between traditional old-time clawhammer banjo playing and a progressive blending of American and Chinese cultural folk styles. City of Refuge, however, pushes that mix into a new and rich melodic space. It’s a record fit for long-time fans of old-time and bluegrass but also one equipped to make a mark with new audiences anxious to push a little on the boundaries of a now decade-old indie folk scene.

Over the last several years, Washburn has made a name for herself playing banjo in the clawhammer style, as a string-band aficionado, and as a songwriter and curator with a unique and striking voice. In addition to her 2005 solo release, Song of the Traveling Daughter, her previous projects include work with the all-female string band Uncle Earl and a more recent project with masters Bela Fleck (to whom Washburn is married), Ben Solee and Casey Driessen called The Sparrow Quartet. Perhaps most distinct of all, however, is Washburn’s use of Chinese folk imagery and instrumentation. She was an East Asian studies major and spent time living and working in China before nearly taking a position at a law school in Beijing.

That Chinese influence and sound might be what is most remarkable about City of Refuge. See, for example, “Corner Girl” which features traditional Chinese instrumentation which is then followed by “Dreams of Nectar” with its remarkable interplay between the styling of an American spiritual and a Chinese folk song. That said, the record’s pop sensibilities, its often easy and rolling melodies such as those on the title track, are what endeared me to it almost immediately. See also “Chains” — which has a Fleetwood Mac vibe — and “Divine Bell,” which wouldn’t be out of place in a set by Asleep at the Wheel. And even though the tunes are singable, Washburn’s voice haunts each track and pulls the listener along beside the drone of her banjo.

Finally, each of the songs proclaims the record’s success as a collaborative project. Tucker Martine (noted for his work with Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, Laura Veirs) produced, Kai Welch helped with the writing, and other notable guests include guitarist Bill Frisell, fiddler Rayna Gellert, and guzheng (the ancient Chinese zither) master Wu Fei. Also, Chris Funk (Decemberists, Black Prairie) and Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) can also be heard on what I think is a nearly flawless record. Listen soon.


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  1. I always love it when an artist shows progression from album to album. Washburn continues to experiment with new sounds, new collaborators, and new directions. The result is a fantastic album which will appeal to a diverse group of music lovers. Congrats to her for another gem. Thanks Jon for the great writeup.

  2. I loved her first album and then, when I heard that she was going into more pop as well as fusion of east-west, I was a bit put off. However, from the first cut, I was and am still totally impressed. She maintained her honesty and her music stands as one artist’s means to demonstrate her integrity as well as remaining a true artist and not just quickly putting out an album because, for now, she is so hot! Well, as far as I am concerned Abigail Washburn will be “hot” for a long, long time . . . We are all the more musically richer for it.

    Thank you, Abigail Washburn

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