Fans of clawhammer-banjo player Abigail Washburn can rejoice. Not since her early days in The Sparrow Quartet have she and her banjo-strumming hubby Béla Fleck toured together, as they’re doing now – with their 17-month-old son Juno – let alone released an album. (Their new collaboration “Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn” features the couple’s stark takes on “Pretty Polly” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”) Washburn says, “For a long time, there was a deep abyss between my career and Béla’s. So I wanted to go through a couple of solo records and tons of touring, so promoters might know my name, too!”
Before you were interested in bluegrass, you were interested in China?
I went off to university in 1995, and there was a poster in the hallway that said, “Study Chinese in China!” So I did it, I went on the trip. And at first, I didn’t like it, to tell you the truth, because China was so polluted and overcrowded compared to what I was used to, and people were all up in my personal space trying to sell me stuff.
But you kept going back?
I had a poster of Gandhi on my bedroom wall, and it felt like he was looking down at me going, “You’re annoyed with China? Come on – get over it!” So I went back six months later, and luckily met this amazing woman named Old Lady Wong in Szechuan who took me on as her student. She taught me about the history of China through her personal experience.
You became so fluent in Mandarin, you even recorded songs in Mandarin on your 2005 debut, “Songs of the Traveling Daughter”?
I really thought I was going to live this life in China, and it was this career playing banjo that really caught me by surprise. I was headed to Chinese law school when I got this opportunity to record banjo, which I’d only been playing for a few months. So when I was writing my first songs, some of them came to me in English, some in Chinese, because that was the mindframe I was in.
And you undertook a Silk Road Chinese tour. Did you find disparities or overlaps in scales and tones?
I’ve learned over the years that even two American musicians can sit down to play together, but if they don’t have the right skills to collaborate, it’s going to sound like crap. It’s the same way when you travel abroad – there has to be this willingness, this openness, this curiosity, even if your instruments are tuned to different pitches. That’s a great starting point.
IF YOU GO
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Where: SF JAZZ Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28-29
Tickets: $30 to $70
Contact: (866) 920-5299, www.sfjazz.org