Unbridled passion for music

Banjoist and guitarist Alison Brown ’84 created an artistic career by embracing the can-do spirit of her Harvard years. 

By Jake Stepansky '17

Alison Brown '84 PHOTO: RICH GASTWIRT

Alison Brown ’84 loves Harvard. She also loves folk music. A Grammy Award-winning banjo and guitar player who spent three years playing alongside the legendary Alison Krauss as a member of Union Station, Brown went to Harvard because Boston boasts the best folk music scene in the country. Her concert at the First Parish Meetinghouse earlier this month was an exhilarating homecoming for Brown and a treat for the lively audience gathered that evening – including me: I grew up listening to Krauss’ cover of “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” on repeat. I spoke with Brown after the show about what it takes to make a career playing music and how Harvard helped her get there.

What was your involvement at the arts while at Harvard?
I actually didn’t anticipate by any stretch having a career in the arts. I started off as pre-med and ended up going to business school right out of college. Really, the most artistic thing I did at Harvard was hosting a radio show at WHRB called “Living Traditions in Bluegrass.” I also played in a student bluegrass band that I put together called Crimson Bluegrass and played in a local Boston bluegrass band called Northern Lights.

How did your time at Harvard shape your trajectory as an artist?
You go to college to discover something about yourself and to discover what your interests are and what the things that really matter to you are. When you go to Harvard, it gives you confidence that when you get out in the world you can do anything that you set your mind to. I went from getting an MBA to working in investment banking. Turning my back on that much more conventional and stable career path – well, it was really a hard thing to do. But getting that feeling that you can do anything from going to Harvard is probably what helped me the most. 

What were your experiences playing with Alison Kraus?
I met Alison through someone who was a concert promoter in Cambridge when I was an undergraduate. When I met Alison, she was maybe 15- or 16-years old but was already this incredible phenom on the bluegrass scene. We did some playing together and talked about some potential projects that we thought could be fun to do together, and then a few months later she asked me to fill in for her banjo player. Very coincidentally, the first show was at Sanders Theatre at Harvard. The first gig I ever did with Alison was at Sanders Theatre! Then I ended up playing with her for three years; it was my first real professional touring gig, and it was a real eye-opener because it was also my first chance to spend an extended amount of time in the South. It was my first chance to be around the people whose culture really created bluegrass music, which was a dream come true and a cultural eye-opener in a lot of ways.  

What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in the arts?
If you can quit, you should. Because it’s a really hard way to make a living, and I think that the people who succeed in it are the ones who have such an unbridled passion for it that they have to do it. Out in the real world, you’re going to be competing against people who have to do that thing. So if it’s not the thing that you have to do, there’s probably an easier path that you can find for yourself.