Faces of Telluride, Part 1: Abigail Washburn, Friendly Face

If Abigail Washburn didn't already have a job as an earnest clawhammer banjo player who takes adventurous side trips away from the bluegrass realm that has served her so well, the singer-songwriter could run for mayor of Telluride. And win.

Never missing a chance to play at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, whether it's on the main stage with Uncle Earl or the Sparrow Quartet or by her lonesome in Elks Park, Washburn squeals with delight when the subject of Colorado's most revered music festival comes up.

She credits her former mentor in Uncle Earl, K.C. Groves, with first turning her on to the "absolutely magical" four-day weekend this southwest Colorado mountain town offers.

"Telluride is the best," she says by phone from her home in Nashville, only days before heading south to the sprawling sea of humanity that is Bonnaroo. Grateful to be able to perform at both in just a two-week period in June 2011 while still promoting an album -- City of Refuge (Rounder Records) -- that was released in January, she refuses to play favorites.

It's obvious where her heart and soul lie, though, as she waxes poetic about being able to sing, play and hear these lovely songs she writes echo off the Fourteeners that envelop each side of the stage.

"I would say that the Telluride main stage for the artist is absolutely the most uplifting, beautiful ... it's a glorious moment to stand on that stage and look out at those mountains and have a moment with that audience," she says, providing a walking, talking endorsement for the chamber of commerce, free of charge. "It's absolutely spectacular."

So Washburn can't wait to return to that main stage with her touring band the Village at 2 p.m. on June 19, the festival's final day, completing a busy four days that will also include opening for Mumford and Sons for a NightGrass show at the Sheridan Opera House (11 p.m. Saturday). She also plans to conduct a workshop at Elks Park in downtown Telluride -- called "Introducing the Village" -- not long after she arrives from Colorado Springs on Thursday afternoon.

The free event, scheduled for 4 p.m., will include a group performance and also feature two of the folks -- Kai Welch and Jeremy Kittell -- responsible for making this orchestral maneuver. During our conversation, I absently minded call the album City of Departure, a title an understanding Washburn graciously accepts. (See Washburn's solo performance of the title track in the video premiere below.)

During the course of the weekend, Washburn also will collaborate separately with former Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins, current Band of Joy member Darrell Scott and Bela Fleck, her husband who knows a thing or two about banjo pickin'. He'll perform Thursday night with the Telluride house band that includes Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan, then reunite with the original Flecktones on Friday.

Married for just under two years but together for about eight, Washburn and Fleck spend more time apart than either would like while working on separate projects in 2011. Rocket Science is Fleck's first release with his band's original lineup in 20 years.

"We don't get to see each other enough. But it's good that we both feel that way," Washburn says, laughing.

Of course, a lot of musical input is involved when they are together. "But there's a fine line between giving feedback and then getting overly involved in trying to shape things too much the way you would see them," Washburn admits. "I guess it's like any relationship, and especially with a marriage, people wanting to make the other more like them, you know?

"So you have to be very careful of that in any dynamic within a relationship, whether it's musical or personal or emotional or whatever it is. We're both really thoughtful about those boundaries and just making sure that we don't think something's a good idea in our head just because it's more like we would do. There's a real awareness about that. It's a wonderful thing."

Such independence gives Washburn, 31, the opportunity to explore China, a country that has fascinated her since she majored in Eastern Asian studies at Colorado College. She wrote songs such as "The Lost Lamb" and the title track in Chinese for her debut album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, then blended Eastern and Western cultures on Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet with Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddler Casey Driessen.

City of Refuge was inspired by Afterquake, her electronic remix album with Chinese-American DJ/producer Dave Liang of The Shanghai Restoration Project. Washburn went to China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which caused orphans and other children to be relocated to other schools while their communities were rebuilt.

"I went around to all these schools and performed for these kids right after the earthquake hit," Washburn explains. "And I also recorded their voices. ... That (project) just sort of swung the doors of creativity wide open for me. And then within a few months of that, I met Kai Welch."

A mutli-instrumentalist for indie rock band Tommy and the Whale, Welch impressed Washburn the first time she saw him perform in a Nashville club while opening for her friend Joseph Arthur, who was with his group the Lonely Astronauts.

Hearing Welch (right, with Washburn) play keys, accordion, guitar and horns, Washburn thought -- "Wow, that's really cool. I wonder what it would sound like for me to play with somebody like that?" -- and imagined his trumpet line on top of her banjo.

At first, Welch wasn't too keen on the idea. Collaborating with a woman whose background focused on traditional bluegrass and old-timey sounds wasn't "particularly cool," Washburn remembers.

"He was a little standoffish," she says of the first meeting. "It actually took a long time for us to connect."

After about a year, their sense and sensibilities finally came together. So they are sharing the amazing City of Refuge journey this week with four Village inhabitants: Kittel (Turtle Island Quartet), viola, violin; ex-Bearfoot fiddler Odessa Jorgensen, who replaces album contributor Rayna Gellert, Washburn's former Uncle Earl bandmate; drummer Jamie Dick; and John Estes, bass and pedal steel.

"It's a big band, probably the biggest band I'll ever play with," Washburn says, laughing again. "But it definitely feels like a realization of a lot of ideas that went into the making the music in the first place on the record. It's really a treat to get to realize that live in front of an audience."

Washburn just may be in for the Telluride of her life.


Washburn offers thoughts about herself, the festival-going experience in general and Telluride in particular:

1. Who are you looking forward to seeing?
"I'l be there for the Flecktones set, no doubt about it. There's a whole a lot of stuff I'm excited to see. I'm gonna sit in with Sara Watkins, who's gonna do a set in Elks Park on Saturday (11:45 a.m.). I'll also be sitting in with Darrell Scott. He's doing like a gospel Sunday set (11 a.m.). ... (Robert Plant and Band of Joy) is one that I'm thrilled that I get to see (9 p.m. Sunday). I heard the record, which is very cool, but I've heard the live concert is very, very special."

2. Who's on your wish list of collaborators?
"Funny enough, I don't usually like to create a wish list. Maybe I should. There's a lot of different kinds of people that I would love to play music with. I've enjoyed reaching out of the genre that I've been a part of and into different areas. But it all depends who I would sound good with. That's kind of the key is to figure that out."

3. What are the challenges of singing/performing at 8,750 feet?
"Oh my God. Crazy. ... You know, it's really funny. I don't totally understand the altitude 'cause some years at Telluride, the altitude really affects me and other years it doesn't. I don't know what to make of that. I wish I could figure out what I was doing differently. (laughs) ... It's definitely harder to get air. No doubt about it. There's less air to be had. I've definitely felt light-headed. I don't think I've ever needed the oxygen before. They keep those tanks backstage just in case."

4. Favorite cover to perform (and why)?
"It's probably Blind Willie Johnson from the 1930s -- a song called 'Nobody's Fault But Mine.' I heard a recording of Blind Willie singing all kinds of stuff, like 'Dark Was the Night.' It's just one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard, and all he's doing is humming. ('Nobody's Fault But Mine' is) not my song. ... It's everybody's song. It's not really a cover in that sense; it's a traditional song that he just did his own way. And I would say those are my favorite covers to do ... that don't belong to anyone that have been passed through the ages. That's why I'm at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival."

5. Did you know this about Abigail Washburn?
Her major introduction to bluegrass festivals in Colorado came at RockyGrass in 2003. She made her only appearance with Lumberjack County, a band started in Colorado Springs at Colorado College (which she attended) that included her then-boyfriend, who always had wanted to enter the band competition at RockyGrass, an outdoors festival in Lyons. "We actually made it to the final round," Washburn reveals. But they were defeated by Open Road, a popular Colorado bluegrass band that is planning a special reunion at RockyGrass this year.

Publicity photos courtesy of Abigail Washburn.

Presenting the video premiere of Abigail Washburn's solo performance of "City of Refuge":

The "Faces of Telluride" series continues in subsequent days leading up to the 38th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival with profiles of Trampled by Turtles' singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Simonett and singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers, who will perform on the main stage with the Bootleggers after winning last year's band competition.