In 2004, Abigail Washburn became the first American musician to tour Tibet on the U.S. government's dime. Joined by the remaining members of her accomplished Sparrow Quartet -- banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee, and fiddle player Casey Driessen -- Washburn served as a sort of artistic ambassador to the region, introducing Tibetan audiences to American music while absorbing Asian influences at the same time. This resulting album bridges the gap between those traditions, offering up an unorthodox brand of folk music that combines the old-timey strains of Uncle Earl (Washburn's previous group) with Eastern scales, Chinese lyrics, and a double-scoop of twangy banjo. It's a record that will seem vaguely foreign to any listener, but the Sparrow Quartet seems to thrive on those eccentricities, since some of the group's strongest performances coincide with the oddest musical pairings. The bandmates draw inspiration from Chinese folk ("Taiyang Chulai"), American gospel ("Captain"), vintage string bands ("Banjo Pickin' Girl"), field recordings, and Kazakh melodies, with the banjo interplay of Washburn and Fleck stitching the entire mixture together. Washburn's vocals are confident and soulful in a light, airy way, but it's the music that truly stands out here, as the four musicians know when to tone down their virtuosity and simply play with each other. Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet is simple at points, complex at others, and tuneful throughout, which helps ground the whole globetrotting project.
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AllMusic Review by Andrew Leahey