Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge

American singer and clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn has a new album, City of Refuge, released on the Rounder label. Her press release describes the album as “a sublime marriage of old-time and indie-pop” and I wouldn’t argue with that. The Illinois-born Nashville-based singer originally had plans to move to Beijing to study law but then got sidetracked by music. Her fascination with China has continued but on this album the Chinese influence is fairly restrained and it’s mainly her American side which is to the fore. Nearly all the songs go off in slightly unexpected directions with imaginative twists and turns along the way and some wonderfully melodic arrangements. Most songs were written by Washburn together with her songwriting collaborator, the multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch who contributes piano, pump organ, guitar and various other instruments.  In fact, a large number of singers and musicians help out at various points. These include a choir and two Mongolian throat singers from the group Hanggai, as well as guitarist Bill Frisell, fiddler Rayna Gellert, and Wu Fei who plays guzheng, a kind of Chinese zither. The album was produced by Tucker Martine.

The title track, plus ‘Bring Me My Queen’, ‘Chains’, and ‘Last Train’ are the outstanding songs but everything here sounds as if it has been honed to perfection. The final two songs ‘Divine Bell’ (a Washburn original) and ‘Bright Morning Stars’ (a traditional gospel song) wouldn’t be out of place alongside the best of the old time greats of American roots music. And in a short ‘Prelude’ to the album’s first song there is a field recording of Chinese children who were displaced by the Sichuan earthquake in their temporary school refuge – especially poignant in the light of current events in Japan.

The theme of different kinds of refuge pervades the album and many of the songs are concerned with the idea of people from all parts of the world trying to find out where they belong. Washburn says:  “I like the idea of City of Refuge, because it kind of feels like ‘Is this a place I can go?’ It makes the record into the city of refuge, in a way.” … “It really is so strongly about that, I mean, from the immigrant in “Dreams of Nectar,” to the rich girl trying to figure out how to be happy in “City of Refuge,” to “Last Train,” where a troubled soul is trying to figure things out, wondering if the last train will come and carry him home finally.”

Abigail Washburn

With many albums getting longer and longer nowadays, there’s a tendency to wish sometimes that the artist had edited things down a bit more. The opposite applies with City of Refuge, which at only 40 minutes leaves us wanting just a little bit more. It’s tempting to compare Washburn with the likes of Joni Mitchell or Mary Chapin Carpenter, or with a great traditional banjo player of the past such as Hedy West, but just when she starts to remind us a little of each of them she’s off in another direction, proving that she really is in a category of her own.

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