Alison Brown, a Grammy Award-winning banjo virtuoso, gifted composer, successful bandleader and savvy indie record company owner, might well have used her fine education — a bachelor's degree from Harvard and an MBA from UCLA — to reap great returns in the world of finance.
After two years working at the prestigious Smith Barney investment banking firm in San Francisco, Brown took a six-month hiatus to focus on her one true calling: her music.
She never looked back. Banking's loss was bluegrass' gain.
Brown, a Hartford native who has made acclaimed recordings and wowed live audiences at top venues from the Grand Ole Opry to Carnegie Hall and at festivals worldwide from Japan to Ireland, went against the loving but cautious counsel of her parents, both of whom are lawyers, by ditching the security and steadiness of the button-down world of business for the perilous but adventurous life of a musician on the road.
"My parents were understandably concerned when I decided to make the switch to music after that huge investment in education — and that's maybe a polite way to put it," Brown says of taking that giant leap of faith.
"As a parent and mother of two young children, I now can completely understand my parents' concerns, and, yes, music is definitely a hard way to make a living," she says by phone from her office at her record company, Compass Records Group, an internationally known roots, folk and Celtic music label based in the music capital of Nashville.
"But at the end of the day," she adds with a note of satisfaction, "if you can earn a living doing something that's your passion, then that's just a tremendous gift. And they [her parents] get that.
"And now they come out to all the festivals where we play. They'll be meeting us [she and her husband, Garry West, a bassist/producer and co-founder of Compass Records] in a few weeks at Strictly Bluegrass, a huge festival held in San Francisco's Golden State Park. I know they love to do that and get to hang out backstage and see Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, and all that. So my decision back then has turned into kind of a nice perk for them," she says.
Just how much that bold, life-shaping decision to invest everything in music has paid off, not just for Brown, but also for fans of her richly hybrid, brand of roots music, will be demonstrated as this premier picker of the five-string banjo and her touring band perform on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 7:45 p.m. at the Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass.
For Brown, who's celebrating the release of her new album, "The Song of the Banjo" (Compass Records), it's a happy, nostalgic kind of return engagement to the celebrated Western Massachusetts venue. She has fond memories, she says, of the Iron Horse's intimate ambience from the many times she played there early in her career in the late 1980s with the rollicking bluegrass band, Union Station, led by the fiddler Alison Krauss.
Brown, who was born in Hartford in 1962 and still has relatives living in the area, grew up as a child in Stamford, not far from where her father, a UConn Law School graduate, practiced law in Greenwich.
"I have really fond memories of Connecticut, a beautiful state with a rich history. I'm a real history buff, and living in a state with such deep roots in American history kind of shaped who I am," says Brown, who majored in history and literature at Harvard and has closely studied the rich cultural heritage of the banjo starting with its African roots.
Talent Evident Early
By age 8, Brown, a bright, musically talented child, was playing guitar, and switched her allegiance to banjo at 10 when her guitar teacher, at the height of a folk music surge in the '70s, played her a recording by the legendary bluegrass giants Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. An iconic, innovative picker who was the Andres Segovia and Django Reinhardt of the five-string banjo, Scruggs revolutionized the way the country banjo was played, creating an incredible new sound with his hard-driving syncopation and sizzling string virtuosity.
"That Flatt and Scruggs record turned me on to five-string banjo back then. So, if you think about it, everything for me is really connected to Connecticut," Brown says.
When Brown was just 12, she moved with her family to the West Coast, about which she knew very little, except what she had learned from watching "The Brady Bunch."
"When we got to San Diego," she recalls of an initial trans-continental culture shock, "people thought that I was from England because of my Connecticut accent."
As she edged into her teens, she played in several Southern California bands, even then seizing attention with her bravura banjo artistry. Later, she toured the country with a fellow teen prodigy, the now famous fiddler Stuart Duncan, and competed in cutthroat banjo contests.
In a dramatic foreshadowing of her future national and international fame, the petite, blonde won first-place in the prestigious Canadian National Banjo Championship competition.
"My Dad knew somebody at KSON, a big country-and-western radio station in San Diego," she explains, "who connected us with the Grand Ole Opry. And so Stuart Duncan, my friend who today is like the god of the fiddle, who tours with Diana Krall and has performed with the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and I got to play one song at midnight at the Opry, which is the most amazing place."
"With me and the Opry," she adds, "it's all about my love for history and the music all over again. You stand on the stage and see that wood circle that's from the old Ryman Auditorium and just think about all that musical history and those feet of the country legends that stood right in the same place on stage. You feel the connectedness with the history of the music — a really powerful feeling!"
Brown's keen sense of history is profoundly linked to her beloved banjo.
"It's like a drum with a neck on it. There's a drum and there are strings. It's African-influenced and European-influenced, with both symbolically represented," she says of the banjo's anatomy, which reveals both its origins and its destiny.
"When I think of the banjo and all the banjo music that has been played in our country for centuries, it's all about our history and who we are as a country and the many different people who have helped make America what it is," she says of the instrument's role as a cultural symbol.
Making Her Own Sound
In creating her own unique signature style, Brown has applied that same melting pot principle to her art with her sophisticated, progressive bluegrass with, among other genres, elements of jazz, pop, country, rock, blues, classical, Latin and folk, including the rich Celtic tradition, which she also loves.
An elegant eclectic with an original sound and fluent, lyrical style, she has wide-ranging tastes and favorite players, including, for example, great jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Among her many musical joys is traditional Irish music, whose close, cousin-like kinship with bluegrass and country allows her to sit-in quite cozily and jam with traditional bands in Ireland.
Compass Records, which oversees a catalog of 600 recordings, has an extraordinary, varied stock of Celtic music, well-worth checking out.
Over the years as a performance artist/composer and musician-friendly record company owner, Brown has, of course, spread the good word about the banjo as a legitimate, widely expressive musical instrument accessible to one and all.
In her latest evangelical bid on her new recording, "The Song of the Banjo" (the title comes from a poem by the English writer Rudyard Kipling), the artist/entrepreneur and her husband assembled an all-star cast in their Compass Sound Studio. It includes the Indigo Girls, Keb' Mo', Colin Hay and the Hawaiian, uber-ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, as well as such noted session players as drummer Steve Gadd, Brown's childhood pal and collaborator, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and the Irish phenom John Doyle.
"Overall, 'The Song of the Banjo' is a very different kind of banjo record that's for sure," says Brown, who hopes the album's diverse repertoire and all-star lineup might provide welcoming accessibility to the instrument's too often maligned, yet actually multi-faceted expressiveness.
"I hope that even people who don't think they like banjo will give it a try," Brown says. "It's capable of a lot of lyrical music, and many people don't ever get to discover that."
ALISON BROWN performs Thursday, Oct. 8, at 7:45 p.m. at the Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, Mass. Opening act songwriter and musician Abe Loomis hits at 7 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 in advance; $20 at the door. Information: iheg.com and 413-586- 8686.