Posted tagged ‘Alison Brown’

How Alison Brown Broke into the North Carolina Banjo Market

July 12, 2010

        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:

Dr. B


Alison Brown and ‘Leaving Cottondale’

January 4, 2010

        When folks hear the name Alison many of them tend to think of Alison Krauss, but there is another music Alison you need to know about.  Her name is Alison Brown.  Ms. Krauss knows her well, as they have toured together in the past.

        Alison Brown has a cool resume.  She did her undergraduate work at Harvard, and then earned an MBA at UCLA.  After that she was a Wall Street investment banker.  I guess maybe that became too tame a life for her, so she went out on tour with Alison Krauss.  She was the first female IBMA banjo player of the year.  She won a Grammy in 2001 for ‘Leaving Cottondale.’  For the folks who say bluegrass crowd isn’t sophisticated, I only ask they re-read this post and then send their rebuttal in the comments.

        Nowadays she and her husband Gary West own Compass Records in Nashville, Tennessee.  They produced Dale Ann Bradley’s IBMA award-winning CD, one of my personal favorites in the year 2009.  The lady can pick bluegrass banjo as well as any man alive but is equally at home with jazz, swing, or pop tunes.  Her husband is a fine bass player and businessman.  These people know music.  

        Alison Brown will be at the Don Gibson theatre in Shelby N.C., January 9th, 2010.  My favorite artists are always the ones who believe in their work and in what they hope to say.  They don’t look for corporate to create an image for them.  Ms. Brown is that kind of performer.  Her show will appeal to a broad demographic spectrum.  It will be attended by everyone from the local hot pickers to young mothers who want to see a lady colleague who can do it all, to old docs who appreciate and love fine acoustic music. 

        I have become enthralled with this Gibson theater.  It’s a cozy 400 seat venue with great acoustics and is small enough to take in the show in detail without one of those widescreen monitors.  It’s just the kind of hang-out for a cat who has spent his life marching to a different drummer, even though we don’t have one in bluegrass.  (Alison might; I am not sure, and if she does it is okay by me.)  If promoters take a chance on people who refuse to settle for cookie cutter art I plan to support them.

         At times patients and readers have asked how I’ve maintained my enthusiasm for my work after so many years in the trenches.  The answer ain’t blowing in the wind, but can be found in the artistry of folks like Alison Brown or Darin and Brooke Aldridge who will follow her at the Gibson on Jan 22. 

        If y’all want to know what makes Doc tick, take in these shows.  It would be a good start to understand an old doctor who is so simple he’s complicated, or a complex young woman like Alison Brown who creates art of simple beauty.  I do not know her well, but my guess is in spite the differences in our ages and day jobs we have much in common.  Like me, I think Alison Brown is driven by motives that involve more important concepts than simple commercialism. 

        I know this.  If anyone shows up within driving distance of Harvey County and they aim to make my life better via their creative efforts, I’m gonna get in the car and go.  I am called to do my day job, and I persevere.  However, the doc gig involves a lot of pain and suffering for folks, and you often find yourself tangled up in impossible circumstances.  Through art, I believe we can see a few glimpses of dignity as we trudge along, and I intend to take in all I can.

        Y’all go see Alison Brown.  You won’t regret it.

        Check out her link:

Dr. B