Grammy award winning Nashville banjo player Alison Brown has many reasons to look forward to her second Australian tour in March.

On her first, in a fluke visit to an independent Melbourne store, she discovered an album by a veteran actor that launched her revered roots record label Compass.

Brown, a Harvard and UCLA educated MBA and former investment banker, signed Alan Dargin in 1993 after listening to his album of didgeridoo works in her motel room.

Now, her label Compass, features a diverse roster of major roots music artists including The Waifs and former Men At Work singer Colin Hay.

"We bought a record called Bloodwood at Gaslight and that record launched our label Compass," Brown told Nu Country in a call from Nashville.

Alison Brown

"It was by Alan Dargin - a great Aboriginal didgeridoo player. My husband Garry and I bought that record, took it back to our hotel room and listened to it. We were blown away - we called up their Australian record label Natural Symphony and they said why don't you release it in the U.S."

The rest is history.

Dargin has appeared in 30 movies, including Priscilla, Queen of The Desert, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra at Albert Hall and won acclaim in the U.S.

Brown - musical director for Texan troubadour Michelle Shocked on her 1993 tour - and West, her bassist, returned to Nashville and sowed seeds of their David label to fight the Goliaths.

The husband and wife music-business team has since enjoyed major international success with artists diverse as Waifs, Hay, Kate Campbell, Paul Brady, Kate Rusby and most of Brown's 10-album catalogue.

One of the best known here is Mississippi preacher's daughter Kate Campbell who has toured here twice - once with Texan troubadour Guy Clark.

Campbell, who shares her hometown Sledge with Charley Pride, has also performed at the Port Fairy folk fest where Brown's Quartet is among the headliners.

"Kate has made four albums with us," says Brown, "Rosaryville was the last of them."


"It's come full circle, it's time to come back," says Brown who lectured at Harvard on how she used her MBA to combine dual roles of music and record label management.

"That's how we started our record label. We were really honoured to have Compass Records be the subject of a case study for Harvard Business School. Harvard's teaching method is to learn by example. We had a chance to talk to the students, very cool."
Equally unconventional was their assigning of the Waifs.

"Usually the artists we sign we know personally," Brown revealed, "their management came to us, looking for a different label situation in the U.S. In this case we didn't meet the Waifs until we were both playing on the Telluride festival last summer. After their set we just went and introduced ourselves. We had already released their music."


And what about Colin Hay whose new album Man @ Work features new versions of Down Under and Who Can It Be Now?

"Believe it or not his manager kept talking to our sales manager," Brown revealed, "Colin really wanted to be on our label. We were sceptical because we didn't think Colin would have the right expectations about the independent record business. We kept dragging our feet. Now it turns out he is exactly on the same page as us, it's a great relationship. He lives in Santa Monica."

Brown, daughter of two lawyers, chose business ahead of medicine and law for a good reason.

"Business school was two years, medicine three and law four so I took the shortest one so I could still play bluegrass," Brown quipped.

"I grew up thinking I would be a doctor and play the banjo at cocktail parties for other doctors. If someone had told me when I was in college I would be doing this I wouldn't have believed them - when you play banjo it's second nature to think you've got to do something else to make a living. You don't see many banjo players' Mercedes in the parking lot."


Brown chose a merchant-banking career in San Francisco after doing an internship at A & M Records and working with The Police and Suzanne Vega.

"I got so turned off by the whole thing I went running in the other direction to working
for Smith Barney in San Francisco," says Brown whose banjo features on hit albums by country stars Tracy Lawrence and Blake Shelton.

"They had just signed Suzanne Vega. I loved what she was doing. I went to a company party where she played and they didn't get her music. She was really interesting but the staff didn't get it at first. I wasn't on same page musically as the rest of the staff."

Brown's recording career started with a duet disc with Stuart Duncan.

"It was called Pre-Sequel on Ridge Runner - a tiny indie out of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1979," says Brown, "it's a veritable teenage record."

Brown, in vast demand as a session player, made her solo debut album Simple Pleasures in 1993.

But it was the tragic death of a musician in a plane crash that inspired Fairweather - the album featuring her Grammy award-winning dual banjo instrumental with Bela Fleck.


Brown, country superstar Vince Gill, Stuart Duncan, Gene and Steve Libbea were in a band that won a California talent quest at Knotts Berry Farm more than 20 years ago.
"We wanted to record a tribute to Steve Libbea who passed away in a plane crash so we got back together and recorded Fairweather as the album title track," Brown recalled, "it was twin banjo tune Leaving Cottondale on that album with Bela that won the Grammy."
It also featured the late Fred Neil song, Everybody's Talkin', from the Midnight Cowboy movie.

That tune featured the vocals of Tim O'Brien who toured here in the eighties with Hot Rize and Red Knuckles & The Trail Blazers.

O'Brien, a member of Steve Earle's bluegrass Dukes, also plays fiddle on the new album by Warrnambool singer-songwriter Marcia Howard.

"Tim and I were in a band called New Grange," Brown elaborated, "we started off as a Christmas band believe it or not. Tim, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Todd Phillips and Phil Aaberg. We made New Grange for Compass - went out on tour and supported it for about 6 months."

Tim O'Brien

Brown began in bluegrass in an era where there were few women band leaders - only Gail Davies and Wendy Waldman had won success as female producers in mainstream Nashville.

"When I started playing there weren't any woman who had a leadership role," Brown says, "now, there's people like Alison, Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis and others have changed that. I really think the interesting things happening in bluegrass these days are driven by the women. Claire Lynch sings on Hummingbird on Fairweather."


Brown wryly recalls embryonic days with fellow multiple Grammy winner Alison Krauss & Union Station.

"It was her pre-video and movie era when we were still travelling in one van and staying in the one motel room," says Brown of the former child prodigy whose vast international success long preceded the O Brother Where Art Thou phenomenon.

"Bluegrass became popular again when it went back to its roots," Brown observed, "it was popular in the seventies with acts such as the NewGrass Revival and John Hartford - it was bluegrass music inspired by smoking a lot of pot. These days bluegrass capturing mainstream attention is very traditional. Alison is really a neo-traditionalist - she brings new songs into the business. Her approach is close to the roots, very interesting."
The NewGrass Revival toured Australia in 1980 as Leon Russell's band on the first tour here by the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

They all closed the show for veteran outlaw band the Dead Livers at the St Kilda Palais.
It was also the night that Madder Lake keyboard player and former Boggy Creek Hotel publican Jack McKinnon, moonlighting with the Dead Livers, beat the bluegrass boys to the beer bin in their back stage digs.


Brown later joined Michelle Shocked as music director during her Arkansas Traveller days but received a bigger shock when hired to play on mainstream sessions.

And again to learn news of her session with Canadian family band The Wilkinsons had leaked to Australia.

"Mac McAnally was producing their record," Brown recalled, "he called me up to see if I would play banjo. I don't think it was ever released. I've done a couple more since then."
They included the new disc by Texan tearaway Tracy Lawrence and the smash debut disc by Blake Shelton who had a huge chart run with Austin.

Oklahoma born Shelton, discovered by Mae Boren Axton - mother of late singing actor Hoyt and writer of Heartbreak Hotel - introduced Shelton to producer Bobby Braddock who penned a huge Lawrence hit, Time Marches On.

"It cracked me up, all these guys top session players saying how do you tune that banjo," Allison joked, "banjo was in country music there at beginning. Bobby Braddock hired me to play on that. Andrea Zonn was on that session too."

Blake Shelton

The duo played on Shelton original Every Time I Look At You and Don Henry-Lauren Braddock tune If I Was Your Man.


Brown and quartet, featuring vocalist Andrea Zonn, begin their tour at the Big House in Brunswick on Thursday March 4 before Port Fairy folk festival - March 5-8, Hamilton PAC - March 11 and Brunswick Folk Festival - March 12.

"We're bringing a special guest, Andrea Zonn, she's a great fiddle player who has been playing with Vince for the past 10 years," Brown added, "she has her own albums on Compass. It will be great having Andrea playing with us. There will be five of us. Phil Aaberg is on piano replacing John Burr - a recent father - Andrea, Kendrick Freeman on drums and Garry on bass."

So will there be another birth on this tour to promote their 15-song disc Replay?
"Gary and I have a daughter Hannah, 19 months old, travelling with us," says Brown here to promote new album Replay, "it will be her seventh country she has visited. Her first trip was Switzerland. We want to feed ring-tailed possums. Last time they ate apples out of our hands."

CLICK HERE for tour dates in GIG GUIDE.

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