Like the troubadours of old, banjo-playing singer Abigail Washburn gets around. She went to college in Colorado and Vermont; played, worked and traveled up and down the East Coast in her early twenties; spent significant time in China; and is now a fixture in Nashville. But she does have a few constants in her life. Among the most prominent: Each year since her 1977 birth in north suburban Evanston, she’s been a regular in Chicago, returning several times a year to visit her extended family.
“I was three years old when my family moved to Washington, D.C., but it’s always been an important place for me,” Washburn says. As many as 25 family members attend her local concerts, and they’ll likely be out in force when she performs Thursday at City Winery and next Friday at Space in Evanston. Her family was critical in shaping her passion for cultural bridge-building.
“One thing I carried my whole life, especially from my grandparents in Chicago, was a huge idealism for the world,” she says. “As a child I went to peace and ERA marches on the back of my mom and grandmother. Through them I learned that I wanted to find a way to make the world a more kind, compassionate place.”
Since she was teen, Washburn was obsessed with China, becoming fluent in the language and visiting the country frequently. She seriously considered a career as a lawyer in international relations. But just before going off to law school, everything shifted.
“I was studying Chinese at a college in Vermont and my boyfriend (Beau Stapleton) at the time was a bluegrass musician,” she says. She was working the merch table at her boyfriend’s concerts. Conversations about folk and bluegrass music piqued her interest, and then she was floored by a Doc Watson record.
“In China, I realized that if you visit often enough and learn the language, you will be assimilated but you’ll still be kept at arm’s length, you’ll always be looked on as a foreigner,” she says. “I was so obsessed with the gorgeousness of China’s ancient culture, and thought how innocent we (Americans) are in comparison. But when I heard Doc Watson’s ‘Shady Grove,’ it was this revelation: We’re not an infant. We’re an incredible melting pot, with these ancient ties to Africa, Scotland, Ireland. I was mesmerized by ‘Shady Grove,’ and I played it over and over again. I realized we’ve got something profound that I could share with my Chinese friends that translates better than concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ ”
She bought a banjo and learned quickly. A song she and Stapleton wrote won second place in a contest at a 2004 bluegrass festival in North Carolina. Soon after, she was invited to join an all-female bluegrass band, Uncle Earl, with whom she played and toured for five years, and was offered a $40,000 solo record deal.
Her 2005 solo debut album, “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” was produced by one of the leading figures in bluegrass music, Bela Fleck, who would later become her husband. “We met at a square dance,” she says. “He said he really loved my music, which, like everything else that was happening at the time, was a surprise to me. He said, ‘I’d love to help you’ and he came over to a (recording) session and basically didn’t leave.”
Her debut included songs she wrote in Mandarin Chinese, and when she toured China with the Sparrow Quartet, a string band that included Fleck, she had a fresh way of communicating with her Chinese friends.
“By learning to play music, I was being delivered my wish in a way that I couldn’t have expected,” Washburn says. “Whenever I visited China in the past, the relationships always felt superficial; there was no time where I felt those moments of conflict and delight that make you feel close to another person. But since I started touring there in 2004, I would always collaborate with local musicians, and that opened up a new level of intimacy. It was really powerful and transformative.”
On her 2011 album, “City of Refuge,” Washburn worked with producer Tucker Martine and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch to stir elements of indie-pop and electronic music into her trans-cultural stew. Washburn will be the first to say she’s no Bela Fleck as a virtuoso musician. But she didn’t get into music to uphold a tradition. Instead, she saw folk as a vehicle for writing songs that would open up conversations between styles, genres and people that might otherwise never talk to one another.
“I know people who are haunted by purist folk thinking,” she says. “I can see it’s a struggle for some artists. But I came into this music relatively late in my life. It wasn’t about the values of preservation for me. It’s more about incorporating those values into who you are and what you want to accomplish. My whole drive is to make sure that music is a common space where we search for beauty and share it. It needs to be louder than any conversation. That’s where we have to go as a human race.”
Abigail Washburn with Kai Welch: 8 p.m. Thursday at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., $22, $25, $35, citywinery.com.; and 8 p.m. Friday (Oct. 19) at Space, 1245 Chicago Av., Evanston, Ill., $22 and $35; evanstonspace.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye