I had an awesome opportunity to talk with Alison Brown about her career, her musicianship, her personal life and the inspiration behind her most recent CD, Stolen Moments. I was particularly impressed by her intelligence and creative talents. I will admit I was excited and very nervous about interviewing a talent of this magnitude but she quickly put me at ease as she is quite personable.
As a female banjoist Alison stands a cut above and is clearly recognized as a musician that is shaping the future of the banjo's contribution to music. Traditionally, the banjo has been considered in a narrowly defined genre and considered a macho instrument. Its contributions to the bluegrass world has been fast and hard driving. Alison softens the sound and moves the instrument out into the world of jazz, folk and celtic sounds.
The first question I asked Alison, and I think it is an important question for all woman who must maintain a balance between their roles as wife and mother and their careers, was:
"You are a musician, a composer, a business executive/entrepreneur, wife and mother. How do you balance it all?"
Alison: "Same as anyone else. All working moms have to balance their time and energies. I have an advantage. Owning my own business I can bring Hanna here and have the babysitters here and that helps make it work."
We chatted about how important it is for companies to allocate the resources by providing daycare services on site for working families. The ability for parents to interact with their child periodically throughout the work day contributes to their productivity and certainly to the child's development.
Chris: "How do you think your educational background has helped you in your musical career including launching your own record label?"
Alison "Exactly as you would think. It has been invaluable. The Harvard network has been a tremendous asset and has provided a certain credibility."
My questions then turned to exploring Alison's choice of instruments. I asked her:
Chris: "What drew you to the banjo as your instrument of choice?"
Alison: "I liked the sound of the instrument and I was inspired by sounds of Flatt and Scruggs."
Note: Flatt and Scruggs played a crucial role in the development of the sound that later came to be known as Bluegrass.
Chris: "Why do you think there are so few woman banjo players?"
Alison: "You know, I've wondered about that a lot. There is no good reason for it. Traditionally, it has been unjustly considered a macho instrument. I think too the Appalachian culture discouraged woman from playing the banjo."
Chris: "I understand you have a pre-WWII Gibson banjo and that you have modified it to create your own unique sound."
Alison: "Yes, to both. I have a 1938 5 string flat head Gibson Mastertone banjo. It was the best bluegrass instrument produced pre-WWII but there were only a couple of hundred made. I still record with it but don't travel with it because it is irreplaceable."
Chris: "In what way did you modify it to suit your style?"
Alison: "Modify isn't exactly the correct word. Like a drum each of the metal parts of the banjo can be tuned. I have tuned them to produce a sound that is as warm and full as possible. The traditional bluegrass banjo is played fast and hard, my sound is lighter and softer."
Chris "What differentiates your sound from other banjoists?"
Alison "The pursuit of that (warm and full) tone which is different than traditional bluegrass. I try to reach outside of the Bluegrass banjo."
Lastly, I moved the conversation toward the future. I asked:
Chris "Where do you see your career headed in the future?"
Alison "Who knows. I hope to keep getting better and continue to make a contribution to the instrument as a writer. I also want to continue to build Compass to provide a platform for artists and music that I believe in."
Chris "Does Hannah show signs of having inherited her parent's musical ability?"
Alison chuckling "How can one tell at such a young age? When she was younger, she would dance on stage and only recently she has started to sing on stage. She certainly isn't shy. At a recent performance in California, she came up on stage and asked "Where is my microphone?" then proceeded to sing out "California here I come"."
Chris "Any final comments?"
Alison "I feel I am very fortunate to be in the times we live in. I can have my own band and be recognized for my contributions. I can run my own company and be successful. I can reach for any goal that I want. Going back thirty years or even twenty years, we, as woman, would not have had the opportunities that we have today."
The overall message from this highly dynamic woman, is that woman today have many opportunities to pursue that which is important to them. Alison took a risk. Instead of taking the expected path of an educated woman and following a career path in investment banking, she followed her heart to pursue and develop an inherent talent; one that gave her pleasure as she has surely given those who appreciate her music. Alison has followed her dream.