Bear with me. With this post many loose ends are tied together. If you read the whole thing, you will be amongst the chosen ones, because you will understand the truth is simple. Bluegrass is but rocket science.
Alison Brown grew up in California, and went to U.C.L.A. for her undergraduate studies. Indeed she still looks like a little surfer girl on the cover of a Beach Boys album. There’s more to her than that though. After U.C.L.A. she earned an MBA at Harvard, and then went on to Wall Street, where she was the only investment banker in New York who read both the ‘Weekly Bond Trader’ and ‘Bluegrass Unlimited.’ I can identify. I’m the only doc in town who reads both ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’ and ’Bluegrass Unlimited.’ Only thing is the kid is smarter than me, ’cause she can read ‘em both at the same time!
Her story reminds me of Gillian Welch. Ms. Welch grew up in L.A. where her parents were writers for the Carol Burnett show. Somehow the child knew she had to be a hillbilly singer. She turned out to be a great one, although you have to wonder how her folks took the news at first.
Something similar stirred in Ms. Brown’s soul. She knew deep down inside part of her was Appalachian, and she was compelled to seek it out. She did just that, and became the only bond trader I know of who quit her day job to pursue a career as a professional banjo player. It was a brave move for a young lady.
Steve Martin (who has returned to his roots and plays some with the Steep Canyon Rangers) gave up his banjo career to become a comedian due to the economic realities of the music gig. As he said, “I don’t recall a banjo player who ever asked anyone to toss his banjo in the back seat of his Porsche.” Think about that. The cat left the music world for the stability of a regular paycheck as a stand-up comic. (As you know, it worked out. )
Alison went on to take her music around the world. (literally) It is the wake-up call music of choice for the rocket scientists, as the NASA shuttle astronauts listen to the Alison Brown Quartet while they sip their morning Tang. The Quartet, while rooted in bluegrass, is a smorgasbord of traditional styles. In addition to Alison’s spectacular banjo picking and Doc Watson style guitar work, they have a fine jazz pianist, and a drummer who keeps perfect bluegrass time. The rock solid bass man is Alison’s husband Garry, who ties it all together. (In our house my wife is the bass player and she sure is the glue for our outfit.)
My guess is Garry has to be the glue for the Quartet because when they leave out for a gig he has to retrieve multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven from the school yard before they can depart. There he’ll find Joe teaching children the fine art of how to convert the human body into one giant ham-bone percussion sound effects guru. I also can identify with Joe. He is but a large child who was lucky enough to find what he loved, worked hard to be good at it, and is kind enough to share his good fortune with us. With Joe it’s Gris mandolin licks, old-time fiddle, Stephan Grapelli jazz violin, a couple parts Dixie-Land, mix in great story telling, add vaudeville style soft shoe dance routine, go eat supper at Shakey’s pizza parlor for the last of the old-time Medicine Shows with Greasy Medlin type gig. If the man takes up tap-dance, he’s got it all. I take in a lot of music, and I’m not often mesmerized, but Joe took me into his world and didn’t let up for the whole show.
The thing that strikes me about Alison, and the Quartet, is that in spite of all their genius they remain humble. No one could hear them play and not be struck by their virtuosity as musicians. Alison is a woman who has conquered more than one man’s world and she ain’t even old yet. She and her husband Garry now own and operate the eclectic Compass Record label in Nashville, Tennessee. Her worldly success is enormous, but my sense was the lady is as down home as if she’d grown up a back porch picker in the sandhills or red clay of North Carolina. Bless her heart, she ain’t got above her raising. Lester would be proud.
It was so fitting she played at the Don Gibson theater in Shelby, N.C. It is the home of Earl Scruggs, and like my young banjo pal Kristin Scott Benson, Alison Brown is a true Scrugg. Alison has been around the world and back but doesn’t see herself as one bit better than anyone else; just a human being fortunate to have a gift to share with the world.
If the Alison Brown Quartet shows up anywhere in your neck of the woods, for Heaven’s sake please don’t stay home and watch television; go see them play. More than that, listen to their human story as they share it with you via their music. Dr. B is old but I learned some from them and you will too. Her music is already out of this world, and one of these fine days they’re gonna land a gig on the moon. The least y’all can do is make her welcome when she shows up in your corner of the planet.
The Alison Brown Quartet will be in Glasgow, Scotland soon. Make sure to take in the show while they’re there. Alison’s got plenty of Appalachia in her, but I’m gonna give you a hint. I think she’s part Scots-Irish too. They way she plays that Celtic music it has to be true.
Other than my wife, my daughter knows me as well as any woman on Earth. I am very proud of her. Like Alison, she is young, attractive, and not afraid to be both feminine and tough. My daughter knows bluegrass. She always says, “Daddy, you’re so simple you’re complicated to people.”
And so is bluegrass music. I wish my old pal Indie coulda been there. He loved ‘Leaving Cottondale,’ Alison’s 2001 Grammy winning instrumental. Indie would said, “Now son, that girl can pick a five-string.” As far as Alison Brown and bluegrass music Indie always said, ”It ain’t no more complicated than that.”
Indie was very wise. Bluegrass ain’t complicated. After all, it’s not rocket science; or is it?
Go visit them at: www.alisonbrown.net Tell ‘em some crazy old doc sent you. Talk to you soon,