In the world of bluegrass, Alison Brown is a legit pioneer when it comes to women making their presence felt within the genre. She’s considered to be one of the most talented banjo players on the planet while winning a Grammy as a songwriter while also being nominated for another one as a producer. While Brown is currently based in Nashville, she actually has extensive roots in Connecticut due to being born here. Her upcoming show at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook on January 10 marks a return to where she first fell in love with music. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and it should be an ideal experience for anyone who enjoys the sound of string instruments.
We had a talk ahead of the performance about growing up in Connecticut, her latest album that came out last year, how musicians can be generous with their talents and her plans for the coming months.
RD: You’re from Hartford and you were introduced to the guitar at the age of eight and the banjo at the age of ten. How did you start playing these instruments at such a young age? Do you come from a musical family or did it happen in another way?
AB: I was born in Hartford, I grew up in North Stamford and I was around the age of 12 when my family and I moved to California. I actually discovered the banjo through my guitar teacher at the time who was a law student at UConn. She brought over a copy of a Earl Scruggs recording called “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and that’s how I got turned onto the banjo. My parents were musical, but they weren’t musicians. My mom had been a voice major in college and my dad played the trumpet, but when I was a kid they weren’t playing music around me so it was something that I just kind of fortunately discovered.
RD: Back in May, you released a new album titled On Banjo that was made with Matt Coles at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville. What was the experience like for you when it came to the songwriting and recording process?
AB: Compass Sound Studio is a studio that’s owned by Compass Records, which is a label I co-founded with my bass player and husband Garry West. It’s on Music Row and it’s an amazing place, it’s where the outlaw country music movement was born. It’s a studio where I’ve made all my records for over 20 years now and Matt is our house engineer so that’s a little bit of background info. Basically, what I was trying to do with this record was to write a bunch of music and focus on my original compositions. My record before this one was The Song of the Banjo and the thrust of that record was to play tunes with melodies that people were familiar with, a lot of them being from the pop music canon.
I played them all on the banjo so people could appreciate what’s so cool about the instrument. It’s kind of geared towards making the banjo more palatable to a mainstream audience that maybe wasn’t already familiar with the banjo, so that was the last record. This record was really all about original music and writing tunes with specific collaborators in mind. I wrote a tune for Sharon Isbin, who is an amazing classical guitarist, that we did together and I wrote one for Anat Cohen who is a great jazz clarinet player. I also wrote one for Sierra Hull who is a great mandolin player, so that was kind of how this project worked.
There’s a tune on there that Steve Martin and I wrote together with two banjos as well.
RD: You also had the Kronos Quartet involved in the album, so how were you about to bring all of these different collaborators into the fold? Did you simply reach out to them, did they reach out to you or did a common friend set it up?
AB: It’s a little bit of all of those things, really. Sierra Hull and I have collaborated on a lot of things over the years so we’re pals, she lives in Nashville where I live. I’ve had the chance to tour with Steve Martin over the past few years, we have a musical relationship so I came up with the beginning of a tune and I sent it to him asking if he could write a section for it, so he did that. That’s how that one happened, but I’ve never met Anat Cohen in person. I’ve admired her from afar while watching a lot of her YouTube videos, especially the ones where she’s playing Brazilian music on clarinet that I think she does so well.
I was trying to get inspired by that and we have a mutual friend in Roger Brown who was the President at the Berklee College of Music. I reached out to Roger and he put me in touch with Anat. I asked her if she wanted to be part of this song I was working on and she said, “Sure.” It’s amazing that musicians usually tend to be pretty generous with their talents from what I’ve found. Even if you don’t know somebody, you can reach out to them and ask if they’ll collaborate. Most of the time, they’ll be really willing to do it.
RD: Yeah, it’s cool when it happens. This upcoming show at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center is pretty much a homecoming for you, so what are your thoughts going into it?
AB: It’s a venue that we have wanted to play for a long, long time, so I’m very excited. It’s always great to play in Connecticut, we don’t get to do it that much but it’s where my musical journey started so it’ll be great to be back in The Nutmeg State. The first time I heard bluegrass music was at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center when I was about eight or nine years old, so Connecticut is oddly but beautifully where it all began for me.
RD: After the show, what are your plans for the coming months? 2024 just started, so will you just be doing a bunch of touring or do you plan on pursuing any new projects? What do you have going on from now until the spring?
AB: I’m always kind of doing two things at once. My band and I have a lot of touring coming up, we’re going to be heading to the U.K. and Ireland to play some shows at the end of the month. I have some studio stuff that I’m working on that’ll consume some time during the first quarter and we also have a bunch of great releases coming up through the record label. Before I know it, I’m gonna look up and it’ll be spring, at least in Nashville.
Who: Alison Brown
When: Jan. 10, 2024 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook, CT 06475
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of the Connecticut Examiner, he also writes for DigBoston, The Aquarian Weekly, The Providence Journal, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.