Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn are known as the ‘king and queen of the banjo’ and their tour, which started today, is sure to demonstrate the amazing sonic possibilities of the instrument.
By Brian Wise
It’s a partnership made in music heaven. Béla Fleck, fifteen-time Grammy Award winner and Abigail Washburn, singer-songwriter, clawhammer banjo player who combined it with a Far East influence. The analogy sounds like a cliché until you see them together, as I did at Americana a few years back. Not only could you experience the interplay between their two different styles of playing but you could sense the intense musical connection. One comparison that came to mind was when I once saw Dr John and Allen Toussaint sitting opposite each other at grand pianos and playing as if they were one person.
It is a rare connection and one that we will be able to see soon. Not only that we will probably get the full gamut of educational and often amusing stories centred around the banjo; though in their humility they might neglect to mention the Grammys they have won together (1) and individually (Bela, 15, including this year’s Best Bluegrass Album gong for My Bluegrass Heart).
Fleck will probably explain how he plays banjo in a traditional style, like his hero Earl Scruggs. Washburn might tell you about the clawhammer style that she saw Doc Watson use. Washburn might also sing in Mandarin, which she studied when she planned to live in China. They might also tell you how they first met at a square dance and began collaborating which led to an even deeper relationship.
They might play selections from their Grammy Award-winning self-titled debut album together from 2014 or from its follow-up Echo In The Valley from 2017. They could choose a selection from Fleck’s catalogue with his long-running, multi-award-winning group the Flecktones which he started back in 1988, preceding many of his eclectic collaborations and styles. Possibly they will delve back into Washburn’s early days with the all-women collective Uncle Earl in 1999 (with an album produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin) or the more recent Wu-Force; or, she might even tell you about being named the first US-China Fellow at Vanderbilt University.
Whatever the conversation, it is bound to be as delightful as it was for me catching up with the couple on Zoom while they were in their home in Nashville prior to heading off on tour. He is originally from New York and she is from Illinois but they both love living in Nashville. The sounds of their two sons, aged nine and four drift away in the background as we talk. Like many close couples they often finish each other’s sentences.
When I ask when they first moved to Nashville, Washburn says, “I’ve been here almost 20 years, and Bela’s been here…..”
“I’ve been since here since 1981,” he says, “So quite a while. I’ve watched it change and it’s not all good from our perspective, but…..”
“Some of it is,” chips in Washburn.
“I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to come too and be at a scene,” explains Fleck, “but as the town has gotten bigger and bigger, it’s not really prepared for it. Infrastructure isn’t really there and so we stay home more and more.”
“It’s true,” agrees Washburn. “It used to feel like a small town where you could get anywhere in 15 minutes, 15 to 20 minutes, and now…..”
“That’s all over,” says Fleck.
The good part, I suggest, is that there are still an incredible number of amazing musicians in Nashville.
“The town has gotten even richer and richer as far as the musicians,” agrees Fleck. “I’m always finding out about great musicians from all walks of music that have moved here. Jazz musicians, rock musicians, and, of course, great country musicians, singer/songwriters, and great bluegrass players. A lot of them moved here from Brooklyn and a lot of people were up north, moved down here. So, that part is really good.”
“It’s gotten harder for young musicians to start here though, because it’s gotten expensive to live here,” adds Washburn.
“Abby and I are coming over as a duo to Australia, and now we’re looking forward to that,” says Fleck when we move on to the forthcoming tour here. “In fact, we just did a number of shows. It was really fun to rediscover our duo.”
“But this year has been a very busy year for me,” he adds, mentioning that he is about to go out on tour for some dates with his own band before coming here. “Kind of reconnecting with the bluegrass community and just going back and finding a way to be myself in that world and really have had a wonderful time playing with all these musicians. The people in the band that I have are just some of my favorite musicians in the world of all music: Michael Cleveland and Sierra Hull, and Brian Sutton and Mark Schatz and Justin Moses. It’s just a great band. So, I think it’s very much a band that can stand up next to the Punch Brothers and hold their own, which is not easy to do. Those guys are the greatest out there these days, and so I’m excited to put the bands together and interact with them.
“So, after a busy year of touring with this band, this is going to be highlight. Then we’re going to kind of put it to bed for a while and I’ll be doing things like this with Abigail and some other projects that have been waiting.”
What does he mean when he says that he had to reconnect with the bluegrass community?
“I guess I felt at a certain point by the end of the eighties that maybe it’s not that I was bored, but it was just that I thought there was a lot of stuff that I could do outside of that world maybe that other people couldn’t do.
“There’s a lot of great bluegrass players and even a lot of great modern bluegrass players coming up. But I felt there were things, there were areas, that I could maybe make some headway. So, some of it was like interacting with jazz musicians and classical musicians and musicians from different cultures.
I just really wanted to step out and because I’m not from the South, I’m from New York City. I always felt a little bit outside of Bluegrass, but I really did find the community there. But then I went off and I started the Flecktones, that really took off and it was completely banjo outside of bluegrass, clearly in a situation where it could be played in rock venues and jazz venues and world music venues and not seen as a hillbilly Southern white instrument. Of course, I loved the hillbilly Southern white banjo playing. I wouldn’t play the banjo if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs, but I’m from New York City, so it had to be honest for me as well.
So anyway, periodically I would go back and reconnect with my clan of the best bluegrass musicians, my favorite bluegrass, I should say – Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Stewart Duncan, Mark Schatz – and make a record like every 10 years or so. But then in between I was playing with Chick Corea, I was playing with a String Quartet, I was playing with orchestras, I was going to Africa, I was playing with the Flecktones a ton.
“So, in fact, the first thing that was kind of close to coming back to the bluegrass world was playing with Abigail, which was very much of a roots project where we have to have the banjos down front and centre. It was a real joy to go back and play a lot of those festivals and be part of that community with Abigail, which is part of what drew us together. But it was one big step away from that to actually go back to playing in a bluegrass band.”
Of course, Washburn has her own career, so how does the collaboration work?
“Well, in a way, it’s been a collaboration of convenience,” she responds, “although we always did want to make music together, but when we had our first child, Juno, that’s when we made our first record. I wouldn’t recommend having a baby and then making your first record, which is what we did. I would make the record and then have the baby. That was challenging.”
“We could have planned better!’ she laughs. “The next time when we had Theodore, our second son, five years later, we did plan ahead, and we made our record before he was born. And then that was a lot smoother. But we decided we really wanted to hit the road together so we could be with our child and then our children together and it’s been so wonderful to be able to tour as a family. What an incredible privilege to get to do that. Now our son, Juno often will sit in on a song and sing with us during the show and is starting to play fiddle. And our dream of the family band, growing it from the ground up is happening.”
“There was also some, there’s some family, there’s a history of some families in bluegrass,” says Fleck. “I was always thinking about Norman Blake and his wife touring together, how he just decided, ‘I’m going to play with my wife.’ And he built a whole career for him and his wife to have a whole way of playing. He could have done a lot of different things and it was great. It was different. It was a whole new offering to the community. So, the other thing is that we didn’t know we were going to sound good together.”
“Yeah,” chips in Washburn. “I mean two banjo players that play two different styles, like building a whole repertoire of music around themselves, it’s not the most self-evident project. So, we both enjoy challenges. That’s one of the things I think that brings us together. We both enjoyed the challenge of how are we going to make this actually really musical and beautiful and fun and meaningful and how do we make a whole night of it? And then how do we make going on 10 years of this music together and sharing it with the world. And now we have quite a backlog of songs and experiences together on the road.”
“We’ve built this musical web of the two banjos,” notes Fleck, “because for folks that don’t know, Abigail plays the old time style, which is an older style of banjo, more related to the African origins called claw hammer sometimes or flailing. I do the bluegrass style. We both do different things with these old styles, but they aren’t typically done simultaneously. So, we’ve come up with a lot of strategies for how to make these two banjos together, serve a song.
“Abby’s a great singer and fortunately we’ve got that going for us. So, we are figuring out how to surround her voice with the two banjos and create an interesting arrangement and take you somewhere with just the two. We bring instruments that are in different ranges. So, we have lower banjos and higher banjos and different tunings. We found a lot of strategies.”
“The cello banjo really opened up our duo as well and the baritone banjo,” says Washburn. So, we’ll bring baritone and cello banjo with us to Australia to share that with people. So, that just spreads out the dynamic pitch range a lot and creates a beautiful soundscape and neat spectrum.”
“Also, I just love backing up a great singer as if I was a pianist accompanying a vocalist,” says Fleck. “And so, I love supporting. On some songs, Abby can put down the banjo and just sing, whether it’s a blues-oriented screamer or whether it’s something very subtle or jazzy even. We both enjoy those kinds of things too. Also sometimes Abby sings and dances at the same time simultaneously, which is a show stopper. So, we got that going for us. Occasionally a kid comes out and they say, ‘You should never follow a kid.’ But when our kids come out, it always a lot of fun. People love it. So, that can happen occasionally too.”
Both of them were responsible for bringing renewed attention to the banjo over the past few decades and now that has expanded with musicians such as Rhiannon Giddens exploring the origins of the instrument.
“I think when I was playing in the Eighties, it was a little bit of a laughingstock,” says Fleck, “and if you put the banjo on something it dated it or it made it sound a little bit hokey. Nowadays, people put banjo on things to give it class. In Americana world, when you hear a band it’s like, ‘Well, what can I do to make this feel real rootsy and more meaningful? I’ll put a banjo on it.’ It’s a real change in perception from when I first came into it and ‘Dueling Banjos’ and Deliverance and everything that movie brought to mind and the very Southern white part of it in a negative way. There was a negative connotation to the banjo, and it was kind of a joke. I never liked that. I never found the banjo funny. I found it to be very serious.”
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn will be appearing tonight in Sydney, tomorrow at QPAC in Brisbane, at Womadelaide on Friday and Sunday, Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday.