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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with world-class banjo player Abigail Washburn

Courtesy of Abigail Washburn.

Courtesy of Abigail Washburn.

Abigail Washburn is a world-class banjo player who is best known for her unique combination of American and Chinese folk music traditions. Tonight she performs with husband and fellow banjo star Bela Fleck at Memorial Hall. Diversions Editor Allison Hussey talked to Washburn about playing with Fleck and balancing being a mom and a touring musician.

DAILY TAR HEEL: You had your first child last year but have kept up a pretty regular touring schedule. How has it been bringing him along on tour, and how have you found having a child has changed how you approach music?

ABIGAIL WASHBURN: Gosh, the baby has turned my world totally upside down in a wonderful way. My prime directive in life is taking care of this little baby, so all of a sudden everything else is just second or third priority. As a result, it’s kind of funny — the things I used to get sort of up tight about with music or — yeah, up tight is really the word for it, anxious — sometimes I would get anxious about performing in front of people or trying new music.

Things like that have lost their power because I’m so wrapped up with trying to learn how to be a mother that music and performing are the things that I realize I know how to do well. So I just don’t worry about them as much. It’s really kind of great. So I have this effortlessness to my performing and my creating music that I never have experienced before. And what a surprising outcome.

I really thought that having a baby would make it more anxiety-ridden because I’d have less time to practice, I’d have less time to think in advance and prepare and calculate my next moves — all those things. And it’s just so strange that this little critter coming into my life and making me feel like a novice at being a mother and entering this whole other realm of caretaking has impacted my whole professional and musical life in a way that has brought me ease in sort of the sense that I just have to do this, because this is all I have time to do, and it’s what I’m good at. So let’s go do it. That’s been a major relief.

DTH: Back in the fall, you and Bela (Fleck) were in town for the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards , and you and Bela performed in a hotel room together — how did that come together? That was pretty offbeat from the rest of the weekend.

AW: That happened because I was asked to be the emcee for the main stage down in town, and Bela was there — oh, he was playing on the main stage, that’s right, with Danny Paisley and the McCourys, The Travelin' McCourys . So he had a really cool set at the festival, and he and I just thought if we’re both going to be there — I was clearly going to be busy from morning to night doing the hosting on the stage, the emcee work — so really, the only option was something late night. It just was really cool.

I always have played those little showcases in the rooms. That’s one of the ways my first band, Uncle Earl, got known and had gig opportunities, was because we played those what we call guerilla showcases in the hotel rooms. I knew a handful of people that would be putting those on, and I knew the people who do Grey Fox (Music Festival) would definitely have a room. I just thought that would be really cool if we got to play one of those together there, because IBMA has been a big part of my career and Bela’s career and we wanted to see our friends and be sitting in a room and have an intimate moment to share that.

I think it was one of the first shows I did after he was born — after little Juno was born. It felt special. Those kinds of small showcases in a room of somebody that you’re good friends with and you really appreciate, and they surround you with all these people that you know and love, it’s just almost like a little house concert. It was really special.

DTH: What do you enjoy most about performing with Bela?

AW: Honestly, the way that the very intense baby caretaking thing takes over, the moment when Bela and I get onstage is this chance we suddenly have to be together. I know it sounds strange because we’re in front of a huge audience of people, and it’s not exactly private or anything like that. But we both get up onstage and we go, “Oh, good to see you. Let’s make some music and just enjoy each other’s company with this time that we have onstage together.” Isn’t that interesting? Who would have thought that it would make us feel connected and close, being in front of a bunch of people. But it really has.

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