Abigail Washburn is an American clawhammer banjo player and singer. She performs and records as a soloist, as well as with the old-time bands Uncle Earl and Sparrow Quartet, experimental group The Wu Force, and as a duo with her husband Béla Fleck.
If American old-time music is about taking earlier, simpler ways of life and music-making as one’s model, Abigail Washburn has proven herself to be a bracing revelation to that tradition. She — a singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based clawhammer banjo player — is every bit as interested in the present and the future as she is in the past, and every bit as attuned to the global as she is to the local. Abigail pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, and the results feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody’s ever heard before.
Her most recent release, Echo in the Valley (2017), was recorded with her husband, 15-time Grammy award winning banjo virtuoso, Béla Fleck. Echo in the Valley is the follow up to Béla and Abigail’s acclaimed, self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album.
With one eye on using the banjo to showcase America’s rich heritage and the other pulling the noble instrument from its most familiar arena into new and unique realms, Echo in the Valley is simultaneously familiar and wildly innovative.
“Some of the most interesting things in the world come together in strange and unique ways and show our diversity,” reflects Béla, a fifteen-time Grammy award winner who is often considered the world’s premier banjo player. “The banjo is just one of those things. It’s a great example of how the world can combine things and create surprising hybrids,” a reference to the ancestral African roots of the banjo combining with Scotch-Irish music in Appalachia.
The 2016 presidential election and all that has ensued since has been a source of anxiety for a large percentage of Americans, including Fleck and Washburn. Now the performers have written something of a mantra for our contentious times.
“Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is off the pair’s album Echo in the Valley. The haunting duet finds them weaving spun-silver banjo lines into an ominous tapestry that mirrors the political discord in the months following Donald Trump’s election. Washburn’s repetition of the title line adds to the track’s eerie vibe, while reinforcing a message of hope and resilience.
“‘Don’t Let it Bring You Down’ is a direct response to the election cycle,” Fleck explains. “Not only did I hate what was happening, but we both have very good friends and family who felt the opposite. When the election happened, some us were so shattered we couldn’t function normally. That’s what inspired this song. We can’t let current events take away our hope or our desire to see the world move in a positive direction. And we can’t deny our friends who disagree with us.”