Bluegrass Music with a Chinese Accent

Abigail Washburn is sitting on a bench in New York's Battery Park City on a recent afternoon, the Statue of Liberty standing at attention just beyond the water's edge. Tourists stop to snap photos, buy trinkets, get panhandled. Washburn is herself a fellow traveler: her touring band, the Sparrow Quartet, will play a set of free old-timey music in about an hour—Americana for the masses at just about the spot where so many got their first view of America. So it proves almost too poetic when five new-timey Chinese businessmen in natty tailored suits drift by. Washburn, who excels at putting herself in uncomfortable situations, approaches them—every inch an American girl under a tumble of curls—and asks, in Mandarin, "Where in China are you from?" The alpha suit in the group, briefly startled, answers: "Beijing." Washburn continues, in Chinese, "I've been to Beijing so many times. I'm a musician and we're performing here tonight." He waves, edging away. "We'll come back."

They don't. Their loss. The Sparrow Quartet's album is perhaps the most weirdly wonderful to land at the top of the bluegrass charts. A student of Chinese culture and American-roots music, Washburn has combined her passions to create a gorgeous, joyful new sound. "Banjo Pickin' Girl," a traditional bluegrass ditty, sits side by side with "Taiyang Chulai," a folk song from Sichuan province, sung in Mandarin. Interspersed throughout are original tunes that both bridge the gap between the two distinct styles and, surprisingly, shine a light on their similarities. "Kangding Qinnge/Old Timey Dance Party," another Sichuan song, is sung over a feverish Appalachian arrangement. Propulsive, funky jams give way to mini-suites with classical roots. Washburn has taken her band through Tibet—a significant first for an American cultural act given that at least seven Tibetan cultural figures have been arrested in recent months, including a folk singer, with no warning or formal charges. Next month her quartet is slated to perform its genre-melding music on the world's biggest stage: the Olympics.

Washburn, 30, says she took Chinese at Colorado College because it was so different: "I didn't know that China and the U.S. would be staring each other down as superpowers." Her first visit East was as a sophomore. She returned after graduation to work for a consulting firm, then came home to become a lawyer. But somewhere along the way, Washburn, who also sang in college, picked up a banjo for largely the same reason she decided to learn Chinese—it was hard. She mastered the old-timey clawhammer style well enough that, by the time she was considering a career in international law, a trip to Nashville turned into a much longer stay. There she cut a demo consisting of the first two songs she'd written, one in English, the other—because, hell, why not?—in Mandarin. Eventually, the allure of woodshedding in Tennessee trumped the corporate path waiting abroad. "Am I going to use my skills to represent Anheuser-Busch and Payless Shoes?" companies she had consulted for, "or am I going to have something to say?" she asks. She handed her demo to banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck at a party, who listened on the drive home. He says he became so absorbed that he got pulled over for speeding. "She wasn't doing anything fancy," he tells NEWSWEEK. "There was just something pure and beautiful about what she did."

The rest of the Sparrow Quartet came together when Washburn needed musicians for a China trip in 2003. The group jammed with the locals, and learned a few new tricks. Washburn & Co. came to realize that folk music is just that: music for folks. A string band in deepest West Virginia will share chromosomal similarities with troubadours in Neijiang. "A lot of Chinese music is very pentatonic, which bluegrass music is," says Fleck, referring to the scale preferred by many roots musicians. "But they think American traditional music is 'Country Road'."

Last year the State Department invited the quartet to Tibet on a cultural mission, making it the first group of American musicians to officially tour the territory. They went, albeit sympathetic to Tibetans' desire to gain independence from China, and were shadowed by Chinese minders. "We certainly weren't free to speak our minds, but we felt that's what we were doing through the individualism in the music," says Ben Sollee, the group's cellist. "Some of them got it." And some officials didn't like it: after one show, Sollee tried to film a fan's enthusiasm, but was shoved aside. Still, Washburn is eager to return to Beijing for the Olympics: her group will play at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new American Embassy. But the cultural exchange she's most excited about? Meeting more locals to jam with.