How Alison Brown Broke into the North Carolina Banjo Market
We went to Alison Brown’s show in Asheville Friday night. It was, in my Marfar’s words on the way home, “elegant and understated; a pleasant, relaxed excellence. I enjoyed that.”
Now you might say, “Wait a minute, all that in a banjo picker?”
I understand, ’cause stereotypes die hard, but Alison is all that and more. The girl can dress up to provide the entertainment at the induction of Harvard’s first female President, or toss on blue jeans and jam with country boys who chew tobacco. She and her husband Gary own Compass Records in Nashville, and carry all kinds of eclectic choices. They are one of the largest distributors of Celtic music in the world, and fly to festivals around the globe in those big jets Doc is so scared of. She’s a wife and mother too; a poster child for the “woman who can do it all.”
Y’all already know Alison, and at first I wondered what I could tell you that you haven’t already heard. My job as the world’s only physician bluegrass fiction writer is to dig deep and bring you the behind the scenes stories you can’t read anywhere else.
Bluegrass is on the move, and has changed. There was a time when it was a tough go for a lady banjo picker in North Carolina. Anyone who showed up at a jam session was viewed with suspicion. You’d hear it all the time. “Doc, you reckon they’ll play it like Earl?”
Alison was the lady who changed all that in North Carolina, and she did it when she upstaged the Harvey County Fair Pig Races.
Okay, I hear the chorus out there now. “Sure, Doc. A Harvard educated MBA business woman within a country mile of a pig race? I don’t believe that.”
Trust me, it’s true.
Friday night Alison sent an encrypted bluegrass code message from the stage. She’d just played with the San Diego symphony the week before. Right there from the quite hip Diana Wortham Theater stage she said, (paraphrased) “taking a banjo to the symphony is like taking a pig to a race.”
I laughed so hard the usher had to shush me. I couldn’t help it though, ’cause I knew what Alison had referred to. You see, years ago Alison passed the Harvey County Fair Pig Race litmus test, one that old Doc had failed just a few short years prior.
The Harvey County Fair is the biggest event of the year. We all go. We used to close my doctor’s office and just take call for any emergencies, ’cause you couldn’t go up against the fair. A choice between a night on the town at the Fair and a doctor’s office visit for a lively discussion of hyperlipidemia was no contest, and I knew I was gonna lose every time. You couldn’t compete with the Harvey County Fair Pig Races either, at least till Alison showed up in town.
Neuse River played the Fair every year. We learned real quick not to test our luck against the pig races. One year we’d no more than finished a sound check when the announcement blared over the loudspeaker.
First they blew a bugle that sounded like the start of the Kentucky Derby. There was a brief pause and then the pitch: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s what’s you been waiting for, the Pig Race is about to begin!”
It was a mass exodus. Everyone left right down to my mama.
“But mama, we’re just gettin’ ready to jam.”
“I’ll be back, son, but the pigs only race once a year.”
It was a turning point in my life; the gig that convinced me I had no future as a professional bluegrass musician. How can a man consider a mandolin career if he plays second fiddle to a pig race?
It wasn’t but a few years later when Alison Brown came through Harvey County. She was on tour with another young lady who was also named Alison. Lou Bedford, the proprietor of Harvey Billiard and Bowl turned to me and asked, “Doc, you reckon they’re sisters?”
“I don’t think so, Lou.”
It took Alison a few years to clear all that up.
Anyway, all us old hands knew Alison was gonna make it. Wanda the farmer was the trainer for the Harvey County Fair Pig Races. She came up to speak and I asked her how the races were going.
“Well, okay Doc, but we did have to postpone ’em this evening.”
“Postpone the Pig Races? How come? I never heard of such a thing.”
“That little blond girl is picking the banjo over at the Grandstand Stage. She’s a better draw than the Demolition Derby. We couldn’t go up against her.”
I smiled. Yep, Alison was gonna be okay. If you can shut down the Harvey County Pig Races when you’re only twenty or so years old, you’re a sure bet to end up a star, and she did.
Wanda followed me and my Marfar to the stage to get a seat for the show. If I had any doubt it was dispelled when we got there. Alison put on a show alright, but even more than that my mama was on the front row. I caught up with her at the break.
“Mama? How come you aren’t at the Pig Races?”
“Oh honey, you can see the Pig Races any time. It’s not every year this little Alison Brown comes to town. Isn’t she wonderful? Why, she picks it just like Earl!”
After the show we went to the truck to head home. I spotted my stethoscope on the dash. It’s good thing I liked the doctor gig, ’cause I knew what I was gonna be the rest of my life. Little Alison Brown had not only upstaged the Harvey County Pig Races, she’d out-done me with my biggest fan; my own mama! Now that’s some kinda banjo picking; good as Earl, and around these parts that’s doing something.
Y’all go see Alison Brown and buy a bunch of CDs from Compass Records. They keep real music alive and we need to support their efforts in every way we can. Here’s their link: www.alisonbrown.net