Banjo Business in Norfolk

Allison Brown will headline Infinity Hall Norfolk on Thursday, June 6.


Banjo Business in Norfolk

Bridging the banjo spectrum from Harvard to Hazard, Grammy-winning musician Allison Brown will headline Infinity Hall Norfolk June 6.

Brown grew up in North Stamford, Conn., and started playing guitar when she was eight. She soon discovered another stringed sound that piqued her interest.

“I was taking guitar lessons from Paul Guernsey. He brought a copy of Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain” album. That was my introduction to the banjo, and I just loved the sound. Paul gave me a few banjo lessons, and when my family relocated to La Jolla California in the mid 1970s, I discovered the San Diego Bluegrass Club. My focus shifted to banjo after that,” Brown says.

She learned to play Scrugg’s-style 5 string banjo (with 2 finger picks and a thumb pick on her right hand). Though her music veers into other styles (jazz, Latin, Celtic), she primarily uses Scrugg’s technique.

Her path to success has been unusual. After completing undergraduate studies at Harvard and receiving an MBA from UCLA, Brown worked in investment banking. But she missed bluegrass so much that when Alison Krauss called looking for a banjo player, she dropped her Wall Street career to pursue music. She toured with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Michelle Shocked before forming her own group, The Alison Brown Quartet, in 1993.

“The lure of the banjo was just too much to resist. And I just couldn’t muster that much passion for tax exempt bonds. But I’ve put my MBA to work as co-founder of Compass Records, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year,” Brown says.

Since then, she has performed at festivals throughout the USA and Europe. Her band traveled to Latin America and to Japan as Friendship Ambassadors on behalf of the Nashville Mayor’s office to celebrate a new sister city relationship between Kamakura, Japan and Music City.

When asked about the connection between different global styles of banjo, Brown says,

“There are banjo-like instruments in a lot of cultures: the shamisen in Japan and the pipa in China for example. But the banjo that we know in the United States came from the enslaved people from West Africa. Over the course of the 1800s, it developed from being a handmade instrument into a mass-produced instrument and by the end of that 19th century, the banjo was America’s most popular instrument. It was actually the minstrel shows in the early to mid 1800s that brought the banjo to the UK and Ireland. It’s an incredibly versatile instrument in my opinion, and in its long history it has been a part of a lot of different genres: jazz, ragtime, classical (thinking about the banjo orchestras in the late 1800s), old time – all of that before Earl Scruggs ever played a lick. I’ve always felt it’s part of the banjo’s DNA to explore different musical styles.”

Brown has played with many of the greats, including Allison Krauss and Steve Martin.

“Both are incredible artists. Alison’s band gave me the opportunity to dig into the roots of bluegrass and travel through the parts of the country where bluegrass music was created. Steve is very inspiring. He’s a great banjo player with a gorgeous touch on the instrument as well as being a very intuitive writer. We’ve been writing music together lately, including our newest single “Bluegrass Radio” which came out in March and debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass chart.”

Brown is also the co-founder of Compass Records Group, which oversees a catalog of nearly 1,000 releases across multiple labels. She serves on the Board of the Nashville Chapter of the Recording Academy, the adjunct faculty of Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music and as co-chair of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize.

And she’s released a new album called “On Banjo”, which she recorded at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville. Technology allowed her to collaborate from afar during the pandemic.

“Those strange times created the opportunity for remote collaborations with artists who were stuck at home since no one was on the road. Sharon Isbin and Anat Cohen recorded their parts remotely to tracks we did in Nashville. It was a different approach, but it opened up a way of thinking about how and whom you could collaborate with,” she says.

For her show at Infinity Hall Norfolk, Brown will perform with John Ragusa (flute), Mason Embry (piano), Garry West (bass) and Bryan Brock (drums). She also has family onboard.

“My daughter Hannah is going to be joining us as a special guest vocalist. She just graduated from Berklee College of Music, and it’s always a blast when she sits in with the band. Our set will include some original tunes, some familiar tunes, and some audio-visual accompaniment. The show offers something for everyone,” she says.

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