With almond hair sweeping around her jawline, eyes alive and sparkling with curiosity, it’s hard to believe the amount of ground broken and history made by Alison Brown. She seems so young, yet the fifty-six-year-old Harvard grad with the quick smile was sitting in as the only woman with her banjo at bluegrass jams at twelve, touring with Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked at critical points in both women’s careers, and founded the musically-diverse, creativity-supporting Compass Records with her husband, Garry West, twenty-five years ago.
Point out the contrasts to Brown, and she laughs. To the lithe banjo player, time is mercury—and she likes the way it flows forward, creating opportunities and opening doors. Believing in making records with an eye on the ultimate outcome, she’s the kind of musician who understands talent will take you places you didn’t anticipate. This weekend, it takes her to a center-stage, headlining spot during bluegrass’s biggest party, leading a First Ladies of Bluegrass showcase Friday night at Red Hat Amphitheater that highlights women’s past and present contributions to the field.
One of Brown’s biggest accomplishments for bluegrass has been Compass Records, which began on a paper napkin in a coffee house in Stockholm, Sweden, while Brown was on tour with Michelle Shocked in support of Shocked’s 1992 LP, Arkansas Traveller. She concedes that she was approaching the business side of it with “utter ignorance.”
“But we believed there was a lot of room for an artist-run, artist-driven record label, having had enough frustration talking with the suits at a label who just didn’t understand what artists were dealing with, and what musicians were dealing with,” Brown says. “It was definitely meant to be artist-driven and a haven for a lot of great musicians we found out on tour.”
Brown’s approach worked, attracting a wildly eclectic roster. Home to Grammy-winning soul rocker Mike Farris, Men at Work frontman Collin Haye, Indigo Girl Amy Ray, jam stalwart Nicki Bluhm, folk-pop’s The Proclaimers, songwriter Beth Neilson Chapman, legends Fairport Convention, and New Grass Revival/Doobie Brothers power-vocalist John Cowan, it remains a haven for the best of bluegrass. Noam Pikelny, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, Mountain Heart, The Infamous Stringdusters and fellow First Ladies of bluegrass Missy Raines, Claire Lynch, and Molly Tuttle are all signed to the label, which also owns roots labels Green Linnet, Xenophile, and Red House Records.
Inspired by Rounder Records’ commitment to the artists and Windham Hill’s sense of aesthetics and context, Compass merged the two ideas. Having fled a lucrative job at Goldman Sachs to play music, she understands the economics must work, but believes creativity can happen on both sides of the equation.
To that end, Brown references “talking points,” or reasons for people to invest beyond just releasing a record. After pulling together the women she jokes “smashed the grass ceiling” for a video with her Deering Julia Belle banjo, she enlisted Becky Buller, Sierra Hull, and Molly Tuttle to record Laurie Lewis’s seminal “Swept Away” on Missy Raines’s Royal Traveller.
Each of the women became the first—and often only—woman to receive the IBMA’s prized Instrument of the Year award. Brown won for banjo in 1991, seven-time winner Raines captured her first bass player trophy in 1998, Buller took home her fiddle honor in 2016, as Hull also received her first of two mandolin awards. Tuttle, the first woman nominated for IBMA’s best guitar player award, won her category last year.
The reality that everyone in the First Ladies of Bluegrass is a bandleader isn’t lost on Brown, a feminist who doesn’t spend time thinking about the label. Actions define her, and looking at her own body of work—eleven albums, several Vanguard repackages, a 2009 Grammy for “Under the (Five) Wire” with the Alison Brown Quartet—and the Compass Records Label Group’s output of over a thousand albums, plus overseeing the physical distribution of the No Depression quarterly, speaks volumes.
Brown’s broad body of work (and the years she’s put into it all) gives her a uniquely seasoned perspective. From the viewpoints of both a producer and a player, Brown has understood firsthand what bringing different voices into the room can do for shaping the energy of a record.
“Flatt and Scruggs is just five farm boys who discovered this music that was like punk for country people in a whole different time,” Brown says. “But when you get men and women playing together, it’s a very positive thing. It gives the music a different edge, though, really it’s a roundness to the music. That’s really different and really beautiful.”
When it comes to gender parity, Brown thinks bluegrass is at a tipping point. She says it’s hard to find a band that doesn’t have a woman in it anymore, and that it’s not lost on her that it wasn’t a man, but a woman—Alison Krauss—who helped Brown kick open the door toward a long and fruitful career as a musician and more. Brown wants to be that force for other women in bluegrass.
“When I was growing up in the seventies, there were no women—and all you ever heard was, ‘You sure do pick good for a girl,'” Brown recalls. “There are now women leading the charge, women scattered through the ecosystem. Women are running labels. [They are] engineers, producers, booking agents, [and they’re] running venues. My strongest word to all of us in the sisterhood of this music: We need to step up and help usher it in. On the precipice of this opportunity, we really need to stand together and create opportunities.”