The concept of do-it-yourself as it relates to contemporary music is hardly new. From folk to punk to jazz to Americana and more, artists have regularly recorded and released music on their own. It is the very cornerstone of what we today know and appreciate as indie music.
But few have taken the idea to such fruitful extremes as Alison Brown. As co-founder — with husband, bassist and bandmate Garry West — of Nashville-based Compass Records, Brown has provided a recording home for some of the country's — and in some cases, the world's — most prestigious names in folk, bluegrass, Celtic and Americana music.
Acts that have released albums on Compass include the esteemed traditional Irish music ensemble Altan, multistylistic fiddler Darol Anger, Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, veteran bluegrass stylist/songwriter Peter Rowan and the Irish-American folk troupe Solas.
Brown is also one of the label's A-list artists. Her Compass recordings, prefaced by several fine albums for the veteran folk label Vanguard, continually expand bluegrass-bred music for the banjo into numerous contemporary settings. As such, the Grammy-winning Brown has been rightly regarded alongside stylists like Béla Fleck as one of the banjo's most innovative voices.
So where did the love of banjo and bluegrass meet the drive to run a record label? It started with the desire to put into practice her education and work history — which includes a bachelor of arts degree in history and literature from Harvard, an MBA from UCLA and tenure with the investment firm Smith Barney. That was before she set business and academics aside to join Alison Krauss and Union Station for two years.
"I suppose it was an obligation," said Brown, who performs Sunday at Willie's Locally Known. "I love playing music. But I had this MBA and this drive to do something that was involving the business side, as well, as did Garry. So doing both things at once makes sense for me.
"I don't really advocate it for a lot of artists. It's really, really hard to carve out the space for each of the different things. There is so much going on with do-it-yourself labels these days and with do-it-yourself releases that I really caution people who want to be artists against doing that because, from my own personal experience, I can see how the business obligation that goes along with putting music in the market can cannibalize your time and spirit for the creative side.
"We literally started the company not knowing anything about record labels except the experience we had with Vanguard and with Alison Krauss. But my thinking was that it made more sense for artists to be running a label than suits, you know? We got to work with artists that were on our fantasy list right at the beginning. We still can't believe we get to represent their music. That part of it has been a dream come true. But it is incredibly challenging."
The most recent album by the Alison Brown Band for Compass is 2009's The Company You Keep. Among its more distinctive aspects is the harmony that arises within the compositions between Brown's banjo work and the piano playing of longtime band member John R. Burr. The bluegrass inspiration is there, but so are aspects of Celtic, jazz and swing.
"When I started writing music for the album, I was kind of surprised that it came out as non-bluegrassy as it did," Brown, 49, said. "So then initially, my challenge was to figure out the best way to put that music across. I didn't expect it to be through a collaboration with a pianist, but that's how it turned out. So a lot of what we wanted to do was to bring that to the forefront. John R. has been playing in the band ever since I've had a band. I think that's maybe 18 years now. So a lot of the goal with The Company You Keep was to celebrate that instrumentation and also our collaboration."
Aside from juggling duties as bandleader, record label chieftain and mom (she and West are the parents of two), Brown serves as adjunct artist/teacher of banjo at Vanderbilt University's Blair School or Music. It is that connection, in part, that brings her to Lexington. Among her Blair banjo graduates is Arthur Hancock, co- operator of the new venue Willie's Locally Known.
"I was Arthur's teacher when he was an undergraduate. I gave lessons to him for four years. He was my star pupil, and that stands for all the years I've been teaching at Blair. He's by far and away the best banjo player that I've had the privilege of teaching.
"I don't have a lot of time for teaching, but I really believe in the importance of passing the tradition of this music along. And it's incredibly rewarding to have been able to spend some time with Arthur and then watch him play it forward with his club. I just know that Lexington will be the richer for his efforts."