“On campus and among the freshman class, she was known as the banjo woman,” Virginia “Ginger” M. Young ’84 said of her first-year roommate Alison H. Brown ’84.
Unlike many prospective students who scour the academic and social offerings of potential colleges, Brown flipped through club listings in the magazine “Bluegrass Unlimited” as a guide for deciding between Harvard or Yale. She eventually opted for Boston and Cambridge’s legendary bluegrass scene.
By the time Brown enrolled at Harvard as a freshman, she had already recorded an album, toured the nation with fiddler Stuart Duncan, and won the Canadian National Banjo Championship.
Brown has traveled a unique path to become a Grammy Award-winning artist and co-founder of a record label, Compass Records.
But though she first picked up the instrument when she was ten, it was not until 1987 that she was able to make it her profession.
Brown’s first year roommates found the combination of her California background and musical interest both delightful and bizarre. “If you are a bluegrass fiddle player, why are you from San Diego?” Monica A. Angle ’84 recalls thinking. Yet when Brown moved from her self-described “surfer chick” culture to Harvard, she said that she found her niche.
“Alison was a convener among conveners—people would bring over their instruments for jam sessions,” Angle said. And despite Brown’s soft-spoken personality Angle said that Brown still managed to be “a center point with the ability to draw people together.”
William W. Carter ’84, a fellow banjo player who lived down the hall from Brown in Hurlbut, said that he had heard of Alison’s talent just days into freshmen week, and when they finally met, the two immediately took advantage of each other’s musical prowess.
Young recalls their jam sessions reverberating through the dorm stairwell until three or four in the morning. Carter and Brown eventually started a band of their own that they called “Crimson Bluegrass,” and the two spent many of their Saturday mornings playing on their WHRB show, “Living Traditions in Bluegrass.”
After she and Carter went to audition at Harvard Square’s Nameless Coffeehouse, their audition sheet was returned with a note: “No way could these people be Harvard freshmen”.
But despite Brown’s obvious talent, her academic workload belied the possibility of a future in music. Brown said that her parents hoped she would become a doctor, and she stuck to her pre-med requirements for two years. Brown took only one introductory music course but never learned to read standard notation music, and eventually concentrated in History and Literature.
Brown eventually wrote her senior thesis on the history of American bluegrass. Robert W. Jones ’84, who knew her as an undergraduate, said as part of her senior thesis research, Brown traveled to Washington D.C. to interview one of the founding fathers of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.
“She discovered the historical context for her own work,” Jones said. “She stood in the community of whose history she was documenting.”
THE PATH HOME
After college, Brown made what seemed to be a peculiar move—she enrolled in the University of California Los Angeles Business School.
When asked about her decision, Brown said, “My parents, who were both lawyers, always encouraged me to think of banjo as an avocation rather than a vocation.”
After earning her MBA, Brown embarked on a two-year stint with the investment bank Smith Barney in the public finance division of their San Francisco office. But she could not keep her mind away from music and the banjo. Eventually, Brown said, she gathered up the nerve to ask for six months of leave.
“When I [told my parents] I was quitting my I-banking job, there was a pregnant pause at the other end of the line,” Brown said.
Her parents were initially skeptical about her decision to enter the uncertain world of the music industry, but in 1987, Brown received an offer she could not refuse. Alison Krauss, who had just released her first solo album as a bluegrass singer and fiddler, invited Brown to join her on a tour with the Union Station band as their banjo player. Brown toured with the ensemble for the next three years and their first gig brought back to the gates of Harvard in Sanders Theatre.
In short order, Brown began receiving accolades from the professional music industry for her playing. In 1991, she collected the most prestigious of awards for a bluegrass instrumentalist—the International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year.
In 1992 she began touring as band leader with pop-folk artist Michelle Shocked, and in 1995 she launched her own record label, Compass Records, with her husband bassist Gary West.
Brown recalls that the process of starting her own label brought her back to the gates of her alma mater. She remembers picking up Harvard Magazine in the Charles Hotel and learning that Melissa J. Block ’83 was working at National Public Radio. Block set up an interview with Brown on her radio show “All Things Considered.”
Later, Brown met her future Compass Records partner at a Harvard Club luncheon in Nashville. When she went to Australia to start her own record label, Brown said that she received a letter from him that read “Dear Allison, I’ve just left my job and if you’re ever looking for investment money, please keep me in mind.” The label now represents an eclectic group of almost 100 musical artists, ranging from Celtic to folk to jazz.
Brown said that she marvels at the “Harvard serendipity” that made the record launch possible.
In 2007, University President Drew G. Faust asked Brown to play at her inauguration. She described the feeling of playing in Sanders Theatre as “an incredible thrill.”
But Brown insisted that the path that led her to her current life was a winding journey that required a “big decision made in small steps...at every fork in the road.” Still, making music her life’s work, she said, can be described as simply “magical.”
—Staff writer Victor W. Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.