Alison Brown has built a career pushing the boundaries of what people typically think the banjo is capable of. The GRAMMY-winning artist’s genre-bending approach to the five-string banjo draws from jazz, world music, and classical as much as bluegrass, resulting in a style that is uniquely hers.
Brown recently released her 12th album, On Banjo, featuring 10 of her original compositions and appearances from the Kronos Quartet, actor/musician Steve Martin, and fellow virtuosos Sierra Hull, Sharon Isbin, and Anat Cohen. Thirty-three years after the release of her David Grisman-produced, GRAMMY-nominated debut, Simple Pleasures, Brown says her latest offering brings her full circle in the musical journey that started when she left her career in investment banking to pursue the life of an artist.
In addition to pushing musical boundaries, Brown also shatters glass ceilings, serving as an inspiration for female musicians. She was the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Instrumentalist of the Year award in 1991, and she co-founded Compass Records with her husband, bass player and producer Garry West, in 1994, fueled by a mission to lead an artist-friendly label.
Brown chatted with BMI after a two-night stint at the Ryman Auditorium with her longtime friends the Indigo Girls. She shared how her passion for banjo drove her to change her career path, how running a record label has changed over the years, and her brutally honest — but kind — insight for those considering a music career.
You just released your 12th album, On Banjo. You collaborated with an eclectic group of musicians on this instrumental album, from mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull to iconic actor/musician Steve Martin. What can your fans expect from this album?
In some way, I feel like it picks up a lot of the threads from my very first record, but my records have been pretty eclectic all along. I’m passionate about pushing the envelope stylistically for the five-string banjo, and that’s been a consistent theme that runs throughout. But my first record, which we’re actually in the process of remixing and remastering, came out on Vanguard in 1990 and was GRAMMY nominated. It was produced by David Grisman — it was a dream come true for me to get to work with David — and that record was all original compositions and incorporated flute. And now, many years later, we’ve got a flute player in the band again and this record is virtually all original compositions. So, in some way, it feels like I’ve come full circle.
You had a rather unconventional path toward a career in music; you attended Harvard and UCLA and initially pursued a career in investment banking. What made you decide to change course?
It was my passion for the banjo, really. Growing up, I didn’t think that I would be a banjo player for a living. My parents were both lawyers and they encouraged me to think of banjo as the kind of thing you’d do on the side when you pursued a career. After I graduated from college, I went to business school at UCLA and got an MBA, and then worked for several years with Smith Barney in investment banking on the public finance side. And that’s an intense job. It’s a great job — it’s a super interesting, very quantitative kind of job. I realized there were a lot of people around me who are very passionate about refunding tax-exempt bonds issued, and I didn’t share their passion for it. So, I allowed myself a little hiatus to work on music — I wanted to see what I could do if I tried to write my own music. And that’s what sent me on this path to becoming a banjo player, record company owner, composer, producer, and all that stuff.
You know, I think that I could have ignored my inner voice and stayed in investment banking, but a part of me would have always wondered, “What if?” I think that if you have a burning passion for something, you owe it to yourself to listen to the little voice inside your head.
You started playing banjo at age 10, after falling in love with bluegrass through Earl Scruggs, but your music has always transcended traditional bluegrass, blending multiple genres. How do you draw from different inspirations when composing or playing music?
It tends to come pretty naturally. Sometimes I’m looking for a tune to have a certain kind of flavor. For example, there’s a tune on the record that I wrote for Anat Cohen, who is an amazing jazz clarinetist. She has a particular affinity for presenting choro music, traditional folk music in Brazil. I love hearing her play that stuff, so I wanted to write a tune that I hoped she would record with me in that style. So, in the case of something like that, I like looking intentionally in a specific direction for inspiration.
I find the hardest thing for me to do is write a tune that is a bluegrass banjo tune. I feel like Earl Scruggs covered that territory so well, and it’s really hard to come up with an original idea in that style. And for me, what comes naturally is all these other things. I’ve spent a career trying to figure out how to present bluegrass-rooted but non-bluegrass-specific music for the five-string banjo.
You co-founded Compass Records in 1994. What inspired this decision and how has the business changed over the years?
What inspired it was being on the road as an artist myself. At the time I was touring with Michelle Shocked. I was on the road with her and my bass player — now my husband and partner at Compass Records — and he and I were sitting in a cafe in Stockholm, Sweden one morning. We started sketching out on a napkin: the good life. Like, how can you build a life in music?
One of the spokes on the wheel was starting a record label. We were passionate about the great music we were discovering as artists ourselves out on the road. We kept thinking how great would it be for artists to run a record label — artists who really understood the challenges that other artists face, and who could bring that artistic perspective to the process of running a record company. That hadn’t been our experience in the other label relationships that we had.
And it’s changed! It’s been shaken and stirred eight times. But we’re still very passionate about that initial mission, which is providing a great home — like a boutique home for artists — and presenting music that we feel very passionate about and that needs to be out there. And, you know, “out there” has changed shape over the years, what that means to be “out there.”
Speaking of Compass, legend has it that the Nashville-based studio at Compass Records is the birthplace of the outlaw country movement. Can you share a little about the history of your studio?
Garry’s better at the history than I am, but we feel very fortunate to be in the same space where the outlaw country movement was born. Our building used to belong to the Glaser Brothers, and it was the epicenter of the movement that turned Nashville on its ear. They had the first platinum-selling record in country music [Wanted! The Outlaws by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser].
Before that, major labels looked at their Nashville imprints, and if a record sold 50,000 copies, they would be thrilled. And here were these guys breaking all the rules. Rather than sticking to the straight “10 and 2 and 6” session schedule, they were telling people to come in and work all night. It was this kind of 24/7 musical party going on there. And to have the first platinum-selling record in country music changed the perception of what Nashville could be, musically, and how the industry would be shaped going forward.
One of the things that I love most about our space is that the Glaser brothers built the studio with the royalties that they earned from publishing “Gentle on My Mind,” which, of course, was John Hartford’s big song. It was a song that nobody would touch back then, and the Glaser brothers took a chance on it.
Sometimes I feel that we’re musical outliers on Music Row, but I think that we’re good heirs to the legacy the Glaser brothers created and that we’re doing something stylistically different.
How did it feel to be the first woman to win an International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award in an instrumental category in 1991?
One of the wonderful things about bluegrass music is that there’s a lot of opportunity for the recognition of instrumentalists. I mean, instrumentalists have always played a very prominent role, but it’s wonderful that the community honors its instrumentalists equally to vocalists. And that’s not always the case across all genres.
When I became IBMA banjo player of the year — I think it was the second year they’d given out that award — that was amazing. But I realized how amazing it was to win as I waited for other women to win those awards. I think Missy Raines, an amazing bass player who has now won that award more times than she could probably count, was the next female to win an instrumentalist award seven years later. It took a while. And then, for there to be five women to win every category that creates a full bluegrass band — banjo, bass, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle — that took 27 years.
It was amazing to be the first, and then it was a long way for my musical compadres. But at the same time, change happens slowly. I feel that women have achieved a real tipping point in bluegrass music and I’m very excited for the future for many reasons, but especially because of that. I think that women are going to be the point of the spear for the future direction of bluegrass music, and I’m very excited to see what happens.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting in the music industry?
This may sound cruel, but it’s not: If you can quit, you should. And by that, I mean that to succeed in the music industry, it takes true fire in the belly for it, because it’s tough. And I think the industry has gotten tougher since I started.
When we started Compass, people were saying, “It’s insane how much new music is coming out — 10,000 records a year!” Well, say that that translates to 100,000 tracks — 100,000 tracks a day are being uploaded to Spotify now. The exponential growth in the amount of content out there is staggering.
And so, for people starting today, there’s just so much more competition and noise — how do you get your music heard? And the good thing is, if you have a real passion for it, the universe will answer that and help you with your dream. But if you’re trying to decide whether or not to be a banker or musician and you can’t decide, banking isn’t that bad.
What’s next for you?
I’m busy getting ready to launch this ArtistWorks course that I just shot out in Napa, which was six days of filming a banjo course that takes people from beginning to advanced. That’s going to be launching mid-summer. I’m finishing producing a new record for Missy Raines that will be out at the beginning of next year. And I’m always writing music to see where the banjo takes me next.
How did you start working with BMI and how has that relationship impacted your career over the years?
I was signed to BMI by Jody Williams way back in the day. Jody was such a great artist-facing representative for BMI. I had just joined Alison Krauss’ band and I remember staying at the Shoney’s Inn, floating in the pool and trying to think of a name for my publishing company.
Over the years, I’ve had a chance to do different BMI workshops and panels, and those have been great. I think that any organization that’s supporting creators’ rights is more essential now than it’s ever been as we navigate the digital transformation of the music industry landscape. I think BMI is fabulous — I’ve recommended a lot of people!