DIARY - 21 FEBRUARY 2004 - ALISON BROWN
BROWN - GASLIGHT SHONE WAY
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
"We bought a record called Bloodwood at Gaslight and that record
launched our label Compass," Brown told Nu Country in a call
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
"Kate has made four albums with us," says Brown, "Rosaryville
was the last of them."
WAIFS AND HARVARD
"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."
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."
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
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.
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
"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.
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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.
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
"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."
played on Shelton original Every Time I Look At You and Don Henry-Lauren
Braddock tune If I Was Your Man.
FROM BRUNSWICK TO PORT FAIRY
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
"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
CLICK HERE for tour dates in GIG
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