Alison Brown on Finding Time for Her Own Album While Running a Record Label: 'Mama Eats Last'

Brett Warren
Alison Brown photographed in 2015.

"The Song of the Banjo" arrived last week.

Alison Brown is the only queen of the IBMA who’s also an MBA.

To put it in non-acronym terms: Brown just picked up a distinguished achievement award for a lifetime of banjo virtuosity at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards on Oct. 1. Just as big a milestone is the 20th anniversary of the label she co-founded, Compass Records, which proves that she wasn’t just killing time earning a master’s degree in business between banjo stints all those years ago.

Banjoist Alison Brown Covers Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On'

The Compass roster encompasses about 50 acts in the realm of Americana, bluegrass, singer-songwriter rock and other idioms -- one of those artists being Brown herself, who released her first album in six years last week. That effort, The Song of the Banjo, marks a departure not just in bringing in special vocal guests (Keb' Mo'Indigo Girls, Colin Hay) and classic covers (“Time After Time,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “What’s Going On”) but for venturing well outside of bluegrass to try to make the closest thing to a pop-palatable showcase the banjo will ever have.

The 53-year-old picker/entrepreneur spoke with Billboard from her Nashville label headquarters.

Can you think of any label heads who are comparable to yours? We all know of artists who started vanity labels and had some success, but there aren’t many who are really getting down in the trenches and not just being figureheads.

When we [Brown and her husband, Garry West] started Compass, it was right at the start of the artist-run label thing, and it was really important to us that we not be perceived to be a vanity label. I was actually signed to Vanguard Records at the time, so we put out 25 records on Compass before I ever put out a record of my own on Compass. Juggling both things is a real challenge. I really don’t know anybody else who’s in the weeds with the actual business of the record business and trying to be creative. For me, it works to do both, but they’re two very different kinds of pursuits, and really not everybody is cut out for doing that kind of work. Certainly I think it impedes the creative process when you’re thinking about tracking radio or press or handling manufacturing. For me, it’s probably one of the things that made it take six years to get to another record. On top of co-running the label, I’ve probably produced more than half-a-dozen records since the last record of mine too. My explanation for that is kind of: “Mama eats last.”

So now that you’re gearing up to tour behind a new album, do you just turn over the keys to the office and wish everyone well?

Even though we haven’t had a record out in a while, we’ve still been doing 30 or 40 shows a year in the interim. And we’re all connected electronically, so it’s just business as usual around here. We have a great staff here, and sometimes I think they do better when we’re not here. [Laughs]

In the early ‘90s, you’d left the group Allison Krauss & Union Station and were touring behind Michelle Shocked when you and your husband formulated the idea that led to Compass. That was the last time you weren’t your own boss, right?

Pretty much. We were out there realizing that it takes 22 hours a day to get those two hours onstage. That’s a lot of time, and we had a lot of other ideas of things we wanted to try, so we very naively decided to start a record label, back at probably the end of the window when one could naively decide to do such a thing.

No danger of naiveté about running a label now, for you or anyone else. With a roster of 50-some acts, how many releases do you put out a year? And does the adult-oriented nature of the music you sign offer you any degree of protection against the attrition everyone is experiencing, or is it just as tough for roots music?

I’d say probably for the last 10 years or so we’ve typically put out between 20 and 25 records a year. But some of them are reissues, or an artist who’s really awesome but is based in the U.K. or another country, so they’re not that active. We used to think that once we had a hundred records out, the whole thing would be a lot easier. And now that we have almost 600 out, it’s definitely not the case, because the market is changing so fast, and nobody can stay ahead of the curve. With that said, artists who need to make music to make a living -- and that’s who they are and they’re out there on the road -- they’re the best partners and best advocates for their product. We tend to work with people who are like that, so we can partner with them as they’re out there on the road and taking the message to the street. Ten or 15 years ago, when you could buy big retail placement programs and buy visibility for an artist more easily, maybe it was a little bit different. But especially anymore, success comes from being out there and taking the message to the people -- and having a strong label partner to help you in that endeavor.

Song of the Banjo seems like a departure for you in several key ways.

My goal for the record was really to show the lyrical side of the five-string banjo. Because ever since I started playing banjo, I’ve kind of realized that I play an instrument that most people associate with bank robbers and high-speed car chases. They aren’t thinking about the longer history of the instrument. I’m really taken with the fact that at the end of the 1800s, the banjo was the most popular instrument in America. And it was also kind of an upscale ladies’ parlor instrument. So there was a completely different tradition that was associated with the five-string banjo 125 years ago. I really think that the banjo can have more mainstream acceptance than it does, and so what I wanted to do was take some familiar music and really kind of show the beautiful side of the instrument. The rapid-fire arpeggios that Earl Scruggs made so popular, when people play that style, it’s really hard for a casual listener to hear exactly what’s happening. It just sounds like all these notes -- how do you tell what the melody is?

It’s not just the traditionalists. There are a lot of Americana bands now with banjos, but they’re going for something hard-edged. You may be close to alone in trying to do something that accentuates the pure loveliness of it.

Well, you know, there aren’t very many women who play the banjo, which is probably why I’m so fascinated by the trend of the late 1800s when it was mostly women playing it. I think that women approach things differently. I mean, I certainly think that what I want to have come out of the banjo is probably a little bit different than what the guys want to hear. I feel like out there in the world, there’s kind of this movement of beards and banjos. And there’s kind of banjos and math. I mean, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is just great stuff, but it’s really intellectual -- really mathematical. I really just wanted to try to make some beautiful music with an instrument that most people don’t associate with beautiful music.

It’s so mainstream and accessible to the common ear -- would you even classify it as a bluegrass album? When you’ve got the Indigo Girls singing and Steve Gadd playing drums, it’s not exactly string-band music.

No, Bill Monroe would have said, “That ain't no part of nothin'” [his famous quote registering distaste for “newgrass” variations]. I mean, even though the envelope is getting pushed ever outward in bluegrass music, which I think is a really good thing, as soon as you add drums, it’s pretty much not bluegrass anymore. Drums and piano — pretty much forget it. To me it’s just contemporary instrumental music. That’s one of the points I wanted to make about the banjo, is that it doesn’t have to be limited to bluegrass, not even the five-string banjo.

It seems like the perception has changed a lot over the last 15-20 years. Banjos are such a common sight that you don’t hear the old joke anymore.

It’s great to see banjo being incorporated in pop music and modern country music and all that kind of thing. I definitely see that trend. But when you go out there and carry a banjo around on your shoulder as much as I do, you realize how pervasive the whole hillbilly connotation is with the instrument, still. And even though those things are happening and the instrument is popping up in symphony halls and all that kind of great stuff, most people still think of Hee-Haw and Deliverance. It’s just going to take time for that to fade. I just think that the fact that bluegrass music came up and had those placements in Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde, that made a huge impact on people’s minds, and I think it still shapes the way most people of a certain age think about the instrument. It’s really interesting. What would bluegrass music have been like if it’d been created 40 years earlier? Sometimes I think about some alien civilization and their first encounter of earth culture being a Hee-Haw rerun, and then all us banjo players will be set back another millennium or something.