Banjoist, songwriter, record company executive
Grammy Award-winning banjoist Alison Brown has played in venues that range from Carnegie Hall to the Grand Ole Opry, bringing freshness and diversity to bluegrass by mingling traditional instrumentals with jazz and pop sounds. The first woman ever named Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, Brown and her husband Garry West cofounded Compass Records, an independent label specializing in folk, roots, and world music. Compass has released more than 100 albums worldwide.
Brown grew up in Connecticut then moved to Southern California with her family when she was eleven. She began playing guitar when she was eight, and strummed her first banjo two years later. In 1978, at the age of 16, she won the Canadian National Banjo Championship. She told Michael Parrish in Down Beat why she switched to banjo: “Banjo is more fun to play in a bluegrass setting for me at least. Sonically, it’s a little easier to compete. With guitar, it’s hard to get yourself heard over the rest of the band.”
Despite her early interest in and obvious talent for music, her parents, both lawyers, told her not to consider it as a career, because it would be too hard for her to make a living. Instead, they encouraged her to go to medical school. She told Bill Friskics-Warren in the New York Times, “My parents used to say, ‘You’ll make a great doctor and you’ll be able to talk about playing the banjo at cocktail parties . That was my mindset.’”
Brown attended Harvard University, but soon switched out of the premed program to pursue degrees in history and literature. She later earned a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from the University of California at Los Angeles. Throughout her college years she continued to play, but from the start it was difficult for her to write traditional bluegrass. Her tunes were jazzier, a trait that would later become characteristic of her music.
After graduating, Brown worked for two years at the Smith Barney investment firm in San Francisco. She told Craig Lambert in Harvard Magazine, “I learned a lot, but I found the bond business a bit dry.” She continued to play music in her spare time and often wondered what would happen if she took her long business hours and spent them on her music. In 1988 she took a six-month sabbatical to write songs.
In 1989 Brown joined a well-known bluegrass band, Union Station, headed by fiddler Alison Krauss. Brown toured with the group until 1991, performing on their Grammy-winning album I’ve Got That Old Feeling. In 1990 she released a solo album, Simple Pleasures, which earned a Grammy nomination. The following year Brown was named Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association—the first time a woman had ever won an instrumental award from the association.
Born on August 7, 1962, in Hartford, CT; moved to La Jolla, CA, age eleven; married Garry West (a musician and music producer), 1998. Education: Harvard University, B.A. in history and literature, 1984; University of California at Los Angeles, M.B.A., 1986.
Worked at Smith Barney investment firm, 1986-88; took a six-month sabbatical to work on music, 1988; toured with Alison Krauss and Union Station, 1989-91; released first solo album, 1990; toured with Michelle Shocked, 1992-93; founded Alison Brown Quartet, 1993; cofounded Compass Records, 1995.
Awards: Canadian National Banjo Championship, 1978; International Bluegrass Music Association, Banjo Player of the Year, 1991; Grammy Award (with Béla Fleck), Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Leaving Cottondale,” 2001.
Brown dedicated herself to playing her own music in 1993, forming the Alison Brown Quartet. The group featured herself on banjo, John Burr on piano and keyboards, Garry West on bass, and Kendrick Freeman on drums. Brown had met West in 1992, when the two toured with singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked. They talked about the many musicians they knew whose work, though excellent, didn’t fit into the commercially determined musical genres favored by most record labels. They decided that his background as a producer and hers in the business would be a good foundation for a label that would let these artists be heard.
In 1995 they established Compass Records, releasing more than 100 folk, world music, roots, and bluegrass albums by 2002. Writing for the New York Times, Friskics-Warren called the company “a thriving niche imprint, one that the Harvard Business School has cited as a model of entrepreneurship.” Commenting on the company’s success, Brown told Friskics-Warren, “We have a foot in both worlds, and because of that we have something to offer that you’re not going to find at a regular label. I think the artists we work with appreciate the difference. The people who buy our records do, too.” She told Michael Parrish in Down Beat, “We didn’t start a label to get rich in the music business; we started it because we love this music. One of the main reasons for our longevity is that we still feel that way.” In 1998 Brown and West were married.
Brown (along with fellow banjoist Béla Fleck) won a Grammy Award in 2001 for her song “Leaving Cottondale.” Warren Gerds noted in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “She sounds as if she’s spinning silken notes.” Brown’s 2001 album Fair Weather earned a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.
Replay, released in 2002, presents a range of styles outside the bounds of traditional bluegrass. The album’s 15 tracks include a variety of songs from her six previous albums, but Brown played each with a different flavor, noting on her website that “[t]his disc documents the way these tunes have evolved over the years.” In the Virginian-Pilot, John Harper wrote that on the album, Brown “bops and weaves through instantly hummable melodies that owe as much to jazz, classical, and pop as to bluegrass.” She recorded the album with a band that included John R. Burr on piano, Garry West on bass, and Kendrick Freeman on drums. Brown told Harper, “We consider ourselves a folk act. But I’m always looking for the best way to present my music.” Using a nylon-string electric banjo for the album produced a warmer sound than the traditional metal strings. She continued, “It’s exciting to take Earl Scruggs-style playing and bring it into jazz. We’re adding some diversity to the [bluegrass] genre.”
Simple Pleasures, Vanguard, 1990.
Twilight Motel, Vanguard, 1992.
Look Left, Vanguard, 1993.
Quartet, Vanguard, 1996.
Out of the Blue, Compass, 1998.
Fair Weather, Compass, 2000.
Replay, Compass, 2002.
Down Beat, June 2003, p. 34.
Green Bay Press-Gazette, March 5, 2001, p. B6.
New York Times, March 17, 2002.
Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA), March 7, 2002, p. NRV3.
Sing Out! Spring 2002, p. 155.
Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), September 6, 2002, p. Y1.
Alison Brown Official Website, http://www.alisonbrown.net (June 16, 2003).
“Banjos and Balance Sheets,” Harvard Magazine, http://www.harvard-magazine.com/archive/01mj/mj01_alumni_1_html (July 2, 2003).
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