From Parlor to Parking Lot

Alison Brown went from playing banjo outside of Shakey’s Pizza in La Mesa to performing with Alison Krauss + Union Station, being named the Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and starting her own label, Compass Records.

I asked Alison a few questions about her instrument and her days in San Diego.

How did you become a banjo player?

“There’s not much that was cool about the banjo in the mid-’70s. Most students at La Jolla High School were more into being surfers and surfer chicks than banjo pickers. But I was really drawn to the sound of the instrument when I first heard Earl Scruggs’s Foggy Mountain Banjo album, and when we moved from Connecticut to San Diego in 1974 I fell in with the San Diego Bluegrass Club.

“There was a really vibrant bluegrass community in Southern California in the ’70s. There used to be banjo/fiddle contests nearly every weekend. The first contest I ever entered was in Old Town. The next one was at Balboa Park. I’ll never forget going to Lou Curtiss’s shop Folk Arts to collect my prize for the banjo contest; I still have the hand-drawn picture of a banjo with the words ‘First Prize!’ that he sketched for me on a piece of manila paper while I waited.

“I also have very fond memories of the parking-lot jam sessions at the Shakey’s Pizza parlor in La Mesa. Lots of great local bands — Pacifically Bluegrass, Pendleton Pickers, Damascus Road — played sets on stage while several circles of pickers jammed outside in the dark, scattered among the parked cars. That’s really where I cut my teeth on the bluegrass repertoire.

“And I tuned in every Sunday night to Wayne Rice’s Bluegrass Special on KSON. He’s still on the air and probably has one of the longest running bluegrass radio shows in the country. So, as it turned out, San Diego was a great place to learn to play bluegrass, even though that might sound a little counterintuitive.”

Did “Dueling Banjos” in Deliverance help or hurt the banjo? Because of scenes like that, many think of the banjo as a hillbilly or humorous instrument.

“You’re right. I think there are more jokes about banjo players than about accordion players and blondes combined. A lot of the time when I play a fast tune I realize that most people probably hear it as background music for a bank robbery or high-speed car chase.

“Seriously though, it is a challenge trying to overcome the hayseed image of the instrument. Thanks to all those Hee Haw reruns, I think folks will always associate the instrument with its rural Appalachian roots. But the banjo has a much more varied and interesting history than that. For example, the instrument was there at the birth of jazz. It was a popular lady’s parlor instrument at the turn of the 19th century. And it originally comes from Africa. It is an instrument which, in the right hands, is suited for a lot of different kinds of music. That’s something that I try to bring across in my writing as well as our live show.”

Does it bother you that a genre like bluegrass or Americana isn’t more popular? How difficult is it getting radio stations to play your stuff?

“I recently had a radio station tell me they couldn’t add our new album because it had ‘too much banjo.’ I wonder what they were expecting. Honestly, it’s tough for any kind of instrumental music to get commercial radio airplay these days. But we tend to find a lot of support at public radio and community radio.”

How did the Alison Krauss gig come about?

“Alison and I met through a mutual friend whom I’d known when I was in college at Harvard. When I was thinking about taking a hiatus from my investment banking job in the late ’80s, I got in touch with Alison to see if she might be interested in putting together an all-female band for a recording project. That recording project never happened, but our conversations led to an invitation for me to fill in with her group for a couple of weekends. And that led to a three-year stint with Union Station.

“The banjo I used on the Krauss album I’ve Got That Old Feeling was the first real banjo I bought, from Stelling Banjo Works, which used to operate in Spring Valley. I saved up winnings from local banjo/fiddle contests to buy it. I played that banjo for years. So, there has been a taste of San Diego in almost everything I’ve done since the beginning.”

The Alison Brown Quartet (with Joe Craven) performs at Anthology in Little Italy on Thursday, May 14.

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For any hardcore banjo fans out there, a few more segments of the interview that were cut for space:

Did your parents want to scream, when you went to Harvard, UCLA, and then went to pursue music?

Well ... Let’s just say there was a profound silence at the other end of the phone line after I told them. Being a parent myself, I can’t blame them for their concern. Back then there were even fewer role models for folk-based instrumentalists, especially that had achieved much recognition on a national level. But when my first solo album received a Grammy nomination, both of my parents came with me to Radio City Music Hall for the Grammys and that was a big turning point.

You won a Grammy, which has got to be one of the coolest things for a musician (I don't think the Beatles even won one). Where do you keep it?

Yes, it is one of the coolest things. I keep it on the mantle in the den; it’s a quiet reminder to me of the importance of following your heart.

How did you and your husbands work with Compass Records come about?

Garry and I started the company on the kitchen table in 1993. We really believed that there was a place for an artist-run independent label and, drawing from the experiences we’d had recording for other indies, we started Compass. Since then the label has grown to nearly 600 releases across the Compass Records, Green Linnet and Mulligan labels. We have a great staff and an historic office/studio on Music Row in Nashville (the building itself was home to the Glaser Brothers and the birthplace of the Outlaw movement in country music) and Garry and I are both very hands on in the day to day workings of the label.

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