The Spark with Abigail Washburn

Our inaugural episode of The Spark with Tift Merritt features a wonderful, in-depth conversation with renowned clawhammer banjoist and singer/songwriter Abigail Washburn, whose career has taken more surprising twists than you might expect. The episode, which aired live in September 2020, is free to watch on YouTube through the end of June.

Though she’s now earned multiple GRAMMY awards for her work as a musician and has been supported by the US Embassy for her musical relationship-building efforts between the US and China, Abigail once saw herself going into law, a life path that seemed inevitable until a fateful five-day meditation.

“Yes, I indeed did not ever think I would be a musician,” Abby says in her conversation with host Tift Merritt. “It did not seem practical and it was not a skill I had, or even a passion I had for my life.”

After working as a lobbyist in Vermont after college, Abigail had a start date for law school. But, before she embarked on her rigorous studies, she gave herself six months to try anything and everything she had ever wanted to do, including mediating. She drove to the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts in her little red truck and started her mediation marathon: four sessions a day, each three hours long, every day for five days.

“Bravery is doing something even though you’re scared, not not being scared.”

– Abigail washburn, the spark with tift merritt

“Within the first or second session, I was sitting there and thinking about how my knee was starting to hurt,” recalls Washburn in her interview. “My obsession with thinking about the pain got worse and worse, and I was thinking about how that pain was my pain, and that I was choosing to sit in that position. And I came to this deep understanding that my pain was my pain and nobody else’s.”

From there, Abby reflected on forgiveness, focus, and her sense of self. She left with her next stop in mind: exploring her love of bluegrass at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) convention. She knew just a little banjo, and had already fallen in love with bluegrass music after listening to Doc Watson’s “Shady Grove,” but all-in-all considered herself a novice when she was offered the chance to begin her musical career.

“I was sleeping in my truck out in the parking lot [of IBMA],” said Wasburn. “I knew five songs, and one of them was a song translated into Chinese by Gillian Welch. And I started hanging out with some girls in the lobby one night, and one of them said, ‘Let’s jam!’ And I was like, ‘I’ve never really jammed before, but I’ll try.’ And we got offered a record deal right there and then.”

In the stories that follow in The Spark, Abby goes on to tell Tift and the audience about her rich collaborations, her time in China, her relationship with partner and fellow banjoist Béla Fleck, and more. She leaves us with much to reflect on, including one of our favorite pieces of advice: “Bravery is doing something even though you’re scared, not not being scared [in the first place].”

Watch the entire episode on the Carolina Performing Arts YouTube, available on-demand until June 30, 2021.

Written by Jess Abel, CPA marketing and communications manager

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