Alison Brown on her June 9 show at The Rex, and how she and Steve Martin topped the bluegrass chart

Alison Brown will take the stage June 9 at The Rex Theatre in Mancheter.

MANCHESTER, NH – Alison Brown is living her best life in the musical moment, no matter where she happens to be. She’s discovered that above all other instrumets, the banjo best channels her passion for music and provides the rhythmic soundtrack for every beat of her heart.  

On June 9 her passion project will lead her here to Manchester and she will take the stage at The Rex Theatre as centerpiece of the Alison Brown Quintet.

If you haven’t heard of her before now, here’s your chance to catch up with an impressive and unexpected musical career – Brown has turned out a dozen solo albums, won a 2001 Grammy award and had several Grammy nominations and industry awards for her own work as performer, composer and producer.

For decades Brown has circulated in and around bluegrass turf, venturing off into lush tangents of rock, jazz, roots and Americana. You can try to define her by the company she’s kept, but all of them – including Brown – remain a close circle of musical peers who, together, are equal parts teacher and student.  

From Steve Martin and Missy Raines, to Alison Krauss, Molly Tuttle and Béla Fleck, Brown has played and performed with the best of the genre’s best.

For them it’s all give and take, bass runs and barre chords, arpeggios and accents.

“I definitely took a career 180,” said Brown, during a recent phone interview, explaining how she found her way to the music scene.  A student of business with degrees from Harvard and UCLA, Brown gave investment banking a spin – mainly because the pathway to success never looks to one’s parents like a long walk with a banjo slung over your shoulder. 

“Fortunately I did investment banking long enough to know I wasn’t missing anything, and I was always passionate about banjo,” she says. A child of the ‘70s Brown’s family moved from Connecticut to Southern California where her parents’ appreciation of the popular folk and bluegrass bands of that era seeped into her bones.

Her parents are both attorneys who encouraged her to learn guitar, “an excellent avocation to fill in the conversational blanks at cocktail parties,” Brown says. Her decision to make a living at music has been a harder road in some ways, but for her, it has been much more satisfying.

Alison Brown has been called “the great lyrical genius of modern banjo” by comedian/actor/banjo player Steve Martin – and that’s no joke.

So why bluegrass?

“I didn’t grow up in the culture of the music, but when I played the banjo I had to learn how to make that sound and once I got into it – the whole culture and what it says about the American experience – I found it incredibly inspiring,” Brown says. 

In good cocktail party form, Brown fills in some blanks with banjo history – which came to the U.S. along with the slave trade. 

“It’s actually like a drum when you look at it, and it reflects that African influence in memory of enslaved people from West Africa –  then the neck and strings have a European influence, reminiscent of America’s original sin that went from new world to old world by way of minstrel shows and white folks who appropriated plantation repertoire and took it to Europe and Ireland. The banjo’s almost a study in American history and demographics, and I have found it endlessly fascinating,” Brown says. And I’m still inspired to search for the secrets that it holds.”

Come to her show next week and she will share some of those secrets with you through her music. 

“At the end of the 1800s the banjo was America’s most popular instrument and I’m on a crusade to make it so again – most people haven’t been exposed to the breadth of what it can do, but the greatest outcome for me when I’m on tour is when someone comes up to me and says ‘my spouse dragged me to your show and I didn’t think I’d like it, but I loved it,’” Brown says. 

The most recent wave of success Brown has been riding has been alongside actor/comedian/banjoist Steve Martin – her collaborator on a song called “Bluegrass Radio,” which hit No. 1 on – of all things – the Bluegrass Radio Chart earlier this month.

That song was inspired by their first collaboration, “Foggy Morning Breaking,” a product of the pandemic.

Explains Brown, “I’ve had the chance to tour some with Steve Martin and Martin Short (who travel with the Steep Canyon Rangers) and so we’d jam backstage from time to time and so I knew Steve favored a certain clawhammer old-time style of playing. I wrote a bit of a tune during pandemic, and reached out to Steve and asked him if he wanted to write a B section, which he did,” which resulted in a song called “Foggy Morning Breaking,”  which hit No. 1 on the Bluegrass charts. 

Needless to say the duo was thrilled – especially Martin – as it was his first No. 1 bluegrass hit.

“And so after that, Steve sent me the lyrics to a song he wrote about having a song on bluegrass radio, and since then we’ve written a bunch more music together,” Brown says.

Brown regards Martin a “true polymath,” and says his positive energy makes collaborating more than fun. 

“He’s so multifaceted, in the time we’ve been writing these songs together he’s also done banjo stuff, a hit TV show, written books – it’s not just fun playing together, but his positive energy makes it exciting to collaborate with Steve,” Brown says. 

In return, Martin has called Brown “the great lyrical genius of modern banjo.”

She says her mission after 50 years of playing, is to get banjos in the hands of anyone with a willingness to learn. 

“I like to tell people once you get it in tune the first chord’s free – all you need are two more chords to play most of Western music, then you’re ready to start making music for more people,” Brown says. “At the core is how music connects you to other people.You don’t have to be a rock star, just have a jam session with folks playing the most fundamental stuff.”

To that end Brown has launched an online teaching school with Artistworks.

“It’s soup to nuts – it starts with how to hold a banjo and ends with advance technique – it’s a way to get new banjo players in the door and get a few chords under their fingers, and that’s what excites me most,” she says. 

She also mentions that her June 9 gig at The Rex is not her first time playing in New Hampshire.

“We used to play at a place called DelRossi’s in Dublin, New Hampshire. It was this funky music venue/restaurant – I think it’s still around. We had just bought our van and had temporary tags on it and we had driven all the way from Nashville to Dublin when we got pulled over by the local police – our tail light was out,” Brown recalls.

The police wondered what they were doing so far from Tennessee. 

“We told them we’d come to play at DelRossi’s – they couldn’t believe it, but it was worth the trip – we loved playing there,” she says.

In addition to doing her best to make sure everyone knows and loves banjo music in America, Brown says her other mission is to see gender parity in the music world. While she acknowledges part of what makes her unique is that there are few renowned female banjo players, it’s not because they don’t exist. 

“When I started in the ‘70s along with all my female bluegrass peers, we were told ‘you sure do pick good for a girl’ so many times. People have stopped saying that, thank heavens, and certainly there are more women playing now but my goal would be that people become gender blind when it comes to music,” Brown says. “I was in a session recently where it was an all-female band and someone remarked on it and I thought ‘no one’s ever said ‘hey, it’s an all-male band.’ We need to get to that place of gender parity in music.”

Brown is touring in support of her 2023 release ON BANJO, described as a musical autobiography of sorts, showcasing her compositional talents as well as her impeccable technique on a set of tunes inspired by bluegrass, Brazillian choro, Latin and classical influences. Joining Brown on the album is an eclectic cast of guest musicians including Steve Martin, Sharon Isbin, Sierra Hull, Kronos Quartet and more. 

Tickets are still available for An Evening with the Alison Brown Quintet, June 9 at 2 p.m. Click here.