Alison Brown: Bluegrass Banjo Player With An MBA

Multidimensional picker turned her back on a career in banking, but still delves into business side of music.

They almost didn't happen: the multiple Grammy nominations, the stints with NewGrange and Alison Krauss, the reputation as a pioneering composer on the banjo.

That's because bluegrass ace Alison Brown almost pursued a career as an investment banker instead.

"I never, from the time I was a little kid, had an image of myself as an adult as a musician," Brown said from her office in Nashville.

That's changed. This spring and summer she's been trading blazing licks with fellow NewGrange pickers Tim O'Brien and Darol Anger from coast to coast at such prestigious venues as MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C., and the Telluride (Colo.) Bluegrass Festival.

Brown, a two-time Grammy nominee, is also touring behind her just-released Fair Weather album (Compass), which includes eight instrumental tracks she wrote, including the opener, "Late on Arrival" (RealAudio excerpt). It also features a variety of special guests, including mandolinist Sam Bush singing Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write the Book" (RealAudio excerpt), on which Brown plays guitar, and Clare Lynch singing "Hummingbird" (RealAudio excerpt).

O'Brien lends his vocals to "Everybody's Talkin' " (RealAudio excerpt), from the soundtrack to "Midnight Cowboy."

Brown is nothing if not multidimensional. For instance, her Alison Brown Quartet shows off her electric, nylon-stringed banjo playing in a much jazzier context.

She's also toured as part of Alison Krauss' Union Station and been a bandleader for Michelle Shocked.

The Business Side

And then there's her work as CEO of the independent label, Compass, which she founded with partner Garry West in 1993.

Her early interest in business didn't prevent her from winning a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry stage when she was 16, or from working her way through the California pizza and bluegrass circuit, where she befriended other young bluegrassers, including Vince Gill and Stuart Duncan.

But the professional career she and her family had in mind beckoned. With a degree in history and literature from Harvard University in hand, she enrolled to study for a master's degree in business administration at UCLA, hoping to find a place where she could combine her music and business interests.

But she was disillusioned by an internship at a major label. "I didn't find anybody doing any actual work. That was discouraging," she said, "coupled with the fact that the music they were doing just didn't speak to me at all."

When investment banking firm Smith Barney came recruiting, Brown took up an offer to join their San Francisco office, but after two years decided to take a brief sabbatical from the world of finance.

"I didn't resign from Smith Barney thinking, 'I'm going to be a banjo player for a living.' I wanted to have six months off to work on writing music, and then I'd get my résumé together," she said.

Just Filling In

Then Krauss called to offer Brown a fill-in gig with her national touring band, Union Station. "I imagine if she hadn't called, I'd have gotten an MBA-type job, in a more creative industry than banking," Brown said.

The fill-in gig turned into three years working with Krauss. Brown's national recognition as a composer and a player increased as she received a Grammy nomination for her debut solo record, Simple Pleasures (Vanguard), and played on Union Station's Grammy-winning album I've Got That Old Feeling (Rounder), both released in 1990. In 1991 she became the first woman in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association to win an instrumentalist of the year award.

But Brown's work began to expand beyond bluegrass as she listened to world music and developed an interest in jazz. She incorporated these influences into her next several recordings on Vanguard, Twilight Motel (1992) and Look Left (1993).

But still there was something missing. "There's really no home at major labels for roots-oriented music, bluegrass music, folk music, and a lot of jazz too," Brown said. "There's a lot of great music out there that people never get to hear. When they come up to me after our shows and say they've never heard music like that before, I'd like them to know that there are all these other great artists, but maybe you have to dig for them a bit."

She and West founded Compass, now a thriving independent label whose roster includes bassist Vic Wooten, British rocker Clive Gregson, and singer/songwriters Kate Campbell and Pierce Pettis. Compass also has an upcoming release from Fairport Convention.

Though she admits to the occasional overscheduled day, Brown is happy with the dual careers and multiple music genres in which she works. "I feel very, very fortunate to have created a situation for myself where I can do both things simultaneously.

"I tend to put in long hours at the office and then come home at night and work on writing music after dinner, at 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock at night. That's sometimes a little difficult. But when I was just a musician riding around on somebody else's bus there was something missing, and if I were just doing the business side of a company, I'd really miss the music side. So it's my challenge to figure out the right balance between the two."