When Alison Brown first contemplated turning her banjo talent into a full-time career, she set herself a simple task – write a bluegrass tune.
"I had never really tried to and I wanted to see if I could," Brown told me in an interview a few years back. "And the hardest thing for me to do was write a bluegrass tune. It seemed to come out every which way besides traditional bluegrass."
Brown later understood why that proved so difficult. The answer lies in geography (she hails from Southern California, not the Southeast) and her influences (genre-blurring players such as David Grisman).
It's fitting, then, that Brown's career has similarly strayed from the bluegrass norm. A Grammy-winning performer whose quartet plays a pioneering blend of bluegrass, jazz and folk, Brown is a Harvard-educated refugee from the bond market who runs her own record label.
In other words, she fits right into Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the roots-music extravaganza set for Friday through Sunday in Golden Gate Park. The free event will offer a wide range of musicians scattered across six stages. The roster includes top-notch blues acts (Elvin Bishop, Betty LaVette), pop stars with bluesy roots (Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs), local faves (Chris Isaak),
singer-songwriters (Loudon Wainwright III and virtually his entire family), Americana acts for days and, yes, plenty of bluegrass.
Brown’s set is sure to draw heavily on her latest release, "The Company You Keep" (2010). The album’s title was inspired by the words of Cervantes, “Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are,” press materials note.
“I’ve been writing, recording and performing my own tunes for nearly 20 years now,” Brown reflects. “And as I thought about the progression of my sound – our band sound – I began to think about what a collaborative effort this musical journey has been. After 15 years of recording, performing and philosophizing about music with (pianist) John Burr and (bassist) Garry West, I really wanted to draw that collaborative spirit to the forefront on this album.”
The sound is rooted in bluegrass but has a vibe all its own. So what does keep Brown from playing traditional bluegrass?
"It's probably a number of things," she told me in that earlier interview. "The first thing is that I'm from La Jolla, I'm not from Kentucky or Tennessee. The bluegrass that I heard in San Diego, it's different from the bluegrass that's played (back East).
"And, while I love traditional bluegrass, and I got interested in the banjo through traditional bluegrass ... David Grisman was a huge influence and Tony Rice and those players who were working out of the Bay Area."
Brown came to music through parents who, as college students during the folk boom of the early 1960s, took up guitar. The couple collected the odd bluegrass record along the way and the sound of the banjo immediately entranced their daughter. Brown was devoted to bluegrass by her early teens, a passion that set her apart from her peers.
"I used to wear cowboy clothes to school and carry around pictures of banjo players in my notebook," she said. "It's all I ever really cared about musically."
Despite her early and profound interest, Brown balked at making a career of music. She headed East at 18 and earned Harvard degrees in history and literature. Brown then returned to Southern California, gained a master's degree from University of California, Los Angeles, and moved to San Francisco to take a job with Smith Barney.
It was after three years in the bond business – at a salary that enabled her to live on Nob Hill – that Brown decided she'd rather do music. She began her career with Alison Krauss, then a 17-year-old wunderkind.
"That was good," Brown said of her three years in Krauss' Union Station. "I'd always wanted to live the bluegrass dream, which involved driving long distances in an old van. We got to go overseas and to the Middle East.
"And she's a wonderful person in addition to being a great musician. You don't always find that."
Brown began her solo career even before leaving Krauss and in 1991 became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association's Instrumentalist of the Year award. She and West met the next year while touring with Michelle Shocked and one night in Stockholm decided to create Compass Records.
"We started it in a curious, different way," Brown said. "We didn't start it to put out our own records.”
Instead, the label offers Brown and West the chance to showcase favorite artists who otherwise might have little access to the recording studio. Compass today encompasses the Green Linnet, Mulligan and Tayberry labels as well and its roster of artists runs heavily to Celtic music – Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Altan, Eileen Ivers, Cherish the Ladies, Patrick Street, Tannahill Weavers.
"The major labels are marketing driven," Brown said. "We, by contrast, find music we think is great and put that out. We can put out a record that we know is going to be a small record and, if we spend appropriately, we can still have a success.”
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