Abigail Washburn,
Song of the Traveling Daughter
(Nettwerk, 2005)

The back cover shows a small, almost waiflike young woman holding a banjo under her left arm. Put the music on, and you hear a voice that is, yes, waiflike. At least at first. In short order, its beauty, soulfulness and maturity become inescapably plain, and then you notice the striking, distinctive banjo playing and the exquisite musical settings (with a small ensemble including, among others, fiddler Casey Driessen and the well-known untraditional string musician Bela Fleck), and you're under the spell into which only art of the highest order can lull you.

The playlist incorporates originals, here and there an interestingly rewritten traditional (the stark and unsettlingly lovely "Red & Blazing," based on "The Dying Soldier"), and unadorned old folk songs (notably the chestnut "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" performed with such purity of feeling that Washburn almost persuades you that you've never heard it before). I am enamored of every one of Abigail Washburn's own compositions and thus unable to name a favorite without a vague sense of guilt for neglecting others just as splendid. Nonetheless, my conscience permits me to report that "Rockabye, Dixie" (written with one B. Stapleton) was the first to grab my attention, hold it and, well, startle me with its ferocious, open emotion.

There are also two Chinese songs (the title tune and "Little Lamb"), learned while Washburn lived in that country. On first hearing them in the background while doing something else, I assumed they were Irish ballads sung in Gaelic. They still sound that way to me even after I've had a few chances since then to afford them focused attention. Most likely, that impression does no more than underscore my ignorance of Chinese music (substantial); either that, or Washburn has brilliantly discerned heretofore-overlooked close parallels between two musical traditions that otherwise geography and culture have kept far distant.

Song of the Traveling Daughter is one of those CDs, not often heard, of virtually endless surprise and uninterrupted excellence. Though the banjo is prominent, it is not in any sense a bluegrass record, but a heartfelt, vivid reinvention of old-time Appalachian music, bent to Washburn's 21st-century sensibility. She manages to betray neither tradition nor herself. This is fusion music in the finest sense of the phrase and the practice.

by Jerome Clark
15 July 2006