During one consulting firm stint in China, with banjo in tow, Washburn gathered with friends after work to do karaoke. At the end of the evenings to break things up, she'd play an American folk song on the banjo. But that was the extent of her performance experience.
By 2004, Washburn decided to make the move semi-permanently to China. But first she decided to embark on a road trip that led to West Virginia and Kentucky where she learned new tricks from old hill country masters of the banjo. She then made her way to the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Nashville where she met some other female banjo pickers. As they jammed, an A&R scout from Sugarhill Records liked what he heard and asked them to cut a three-song demo.
While that band never jelled, the demo turned heads at Nettwerk, and, through mutual friends, Washburn hooked up with Fleck, who met her at a pickers' party. She gave him a copy of her latest tunes.
"I started listening to Abby's demo as I was driving and I kept going faster and faster," Fleck recalled. "I ended up getting pulled over for a ticket. But I kept thinking, is this as good as I think it is? I loved her songs, her voice, her mix of Chinese and American folk."
On a hiatus from his band the Flecktones, Fleck tagged along with Washburn for her second tour of China after her first solo CD in 2005, "Song of the Traveling Daughter," a bilingual disc highlighted by the title track sung in Mandarin. For the second CD, and first featuring the Sparrow Quartet as a distinct unit, Fleck said, "We fought for everything to be excellent and unusual, with a lot of detail to make all the songs be special and right."
The group's singular soundscape is steeped in a chamber music-meets-bluegrass sensibility and buoyed by artistically fashioned arrangements. Influences include lyrical Sichaun folk songs, American field recordings and work songs, Béla Bartok and Giacomo Puccini's experiments with music from the East, and a meld of American old-timey, revival gospel, grooved blues and mountain yodeling.
Even though she never planned on being a performer, Washburn says she's pleased that she's onstage now instead of working in some area of Sino-American comparative law, which was her original plan.
"It all goes back to when I was first offered a record deal," she said. "The big question was, what do I want to say? I can use my voice as a foreigner working in the Chinese market or use it as an artist who has something important to say on a cultural level.
"In one way, I had my nose to the ground to return to China," she continued. "I had passed my TOEFL exam so that I could get my masters in law at a Chinese university. But, as it turned out, I'm getting to be a part of China in another way, by, like the Dalai Lama said, attempting to be engaged with a spirit of peace."
That attitude has been a guiding light in recent times, what with the clampdowns in Tibet and subsequent international protests, and then the catastrophic earthquake in Sichaun province, where Washburn has close friends in the capital city of Chengdu, all of whom she reports are safe.
Washburn's next chapter of art trumping politics will come this summer when she and the Sparrow Quartet perform at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which is already teeming with international controversy manifested by the protest-plagued torch relay.