Welcome to State Of The Union, appearing each month in bluegrass now magazine! This column provides the spouses of professional bluegrass musicians with a forum in which they can share their insights, observations, and experience with fans and other bluegrass spouses.
July 2003: Garry West on PARTNERSHIP
It's probably safe to say that most professional bluegrass musicians spend a lot of time away from their families. Musicians go out on the road, and families--well, they are often left behind.
Bassist Garry West is a happy exception. He and his wife, Grammy-winning banjo player Alison Brown, are almost never apart.
“We've been together constantly since about 1992,” Garry says. “We did a world tour with folk-rock artist Michelle Shocked and at the end, we simultaneously launched our touring band, the Alison Brown Quartet, and our label, Compass Records. We've literally been together almost every minute since. And we wouldn't have it any other way!”
Alison's a former investment banker with a BA from Harvard and an MBA from UCLA, and Garry's background is also impressive. Raised in Atlanta, he majored in music education at a liberal arts college and attended Boston's venerable Berklee School of Music. In 1988, he moved to Nashville to tour with Patty Loveless, and also worked with R&B legend Delbert McClinton and blues guitar master Taj Mahal.
Incredible experiences, but the price can be high. “I was married before, and I have a 16-year-old daughter, so I know about leaving and being on the road for weeks at a time,” Garry comments. “You're always nervous about traveling, being away from your family. I know what it's like from that side, and I can well imagine the family's side.”
Early in their relationship, Garry and Alison decided that things would be different for them. “Basically, we created our lives. We literally sat down and said, 'What do we see as the good life, and how do we go about making it work?' Things change and evolve; goals shift. But it's all about figuring out that this is a good relationship, so how do we go about creating the life we want to have? We've been really lucky.”
Garry has a strong, clear perception of his own part in the universe. “I believe that everybody, if they're fortunate, falls into the path that utilizes the best of their abilities. In my case, after years of studying music education and playing woodwinds, I gravitated to the bass. It's a supportive instrument, at least in its conventional role. It's at the center of everything, on the front edge, looking back at everyone.” He says his supportive role as a bass player helps him play supportive roles as husband and label partner. “The things that really move me-production, and the organizational aspects of music--I have every opportunity to pursue. Alison concentrates on her performance, and counts on me for the framework.”
With their complementary strengths and passions, Garry and Alison have created a record label recognized by Harvard Business School as a model of entrepreneurship. It's also known for the excellence of its recordings. As Bill Friskics-Warren wrote in the New York Times, “Compass's commitment to releasing worthwhile yet overlooked music and to packaging it in a thoughtful and even an artful manner has given it a cachet not unlike that of Windham Hill and Rykodisc.”
“The biggest challenge is in trying to remember, and find a way, to turn off the work,” says Garry, who is always connected to the office by cell phone and laptop computer. “Because our schedule is full-time both as artists and label owners, the office-related stuff ends up going home or on the road with us. If you're not careful, it just never stops! The one prerogative we have, since we work literally all the time, is that if we have to take some time off, we can justify it.”
Last year, the busy couple found a new reason to take the occasional day off: baby Hannah, who entered the world on July 5, 2002. “She was born two weeks after Alison was on the Telluride stage playing with the Boom Chicks. We went back on the road when she was 3½ weeks old,” Garry says.
Hannah has never missed a show, and soon she's going to need her own frequent flyer account. Though only nine months old at interview time, she recently traveled on her 54th flight!
Visit Garry, Alison and Hannah online at www.compassrecords.com.
if you're the spouse of a professional bluegrass musician,
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