Interview: Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn bring the family

Playing in a duo allows banjo virtuoso couple Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck to make
touring a family affair. Playing in a duo allows banjo virtuoso couple Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck to make touring a family affair.

Restless musical innovator Béla Fleck is known for taking the banjo on a wide range of sonic journeys. The 15-time Grammy winner brought his instrument to the outer limits of improvisational jazz with his lauded outfit the Flecktones and explored its roots in Africa through the documentary Throw Down Your Heart. These days, Fleck is keeping his musical interests close to home.

On his current tour, which visits the Jefferson Theater on March 6, Fleck will perform banjo duets with his wife Abigail Washburn, an accomplished songwriter and claw hammer-style player.

The duo pulls material from their individual catalogs. Fleck’s work dates back to the late ’70s when he first emerged as a progressive bluegrass expansionist who went on to join pioneering picking outfit Newgrass Revival before forming the Flecktones in 1988. Washburn emerged with the all-female string band Uncle Earl and also has two solo albums to her credit. The couple first toured together nearly a decade ago in the Sparrow Quartet. They put together the duo as a way to work together while taking care of their 9-month-old son Juno, who joins them on the road.

In between the family gigs, Fleck mixes in performances with various symphonies behind The Impostor, his banjo concerto that was released last summer on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon Records. Fleck checked in with C-VILLE Weekly over the phone before his appearance in town.

C-VILLE Weekly: How has the show with you and Abigail developed, the more you’ve played and had time on the road? 

Béla Fleck: We just get more and more comfortable and confident with it. Also, since we are now doing some recording together for a duo album, we’ve been able to refine arrangements and explore different combinations of instruments; always banjos, though, high ones [and] low ones. Before, we kind of just let everything happen. Now there’s a little more design.

The set list includes material from Abigail’s albums, banjo instrumentals of mine, some co-writes, a good bit of traditional material, and I get to do some solo banjo showing off, too.

Many spouses like keeping work life and home life separate. Jokes aside, since through your career you’ve collaborated with a range of amazing musicians, how would you describe the experience of collaborating with your wife?

I would agree that that would be excellent advice for most couples. But in the case of me and Abby, somehow it works. The trick is avoiding letting it become the only thing we each do. Because we both have several projects going on separately, this duo can be a meeting place for us, and it bonds us as a couple. Most of all, it keeps us together in the same place much more often with our baby boy, Juno.

What are some of the interesting dynamics of doing banjo duets?

It’s a lot of separate notes that lock together in a grid, which is different from how a lot of instruments work together. We can create a loping groove that is very unique.

Dynamics are crucial, and bringing forth a wide variety of tones keeps the banjos from becoming monotonous. At best it’s an ear and brain massage that invigorates the listener.

What inspired you to compose The Impostor and use the banjo in a classical context?

I love finding new contexts to attempt to make the banjo feel at home in. I hadn’t heard the banjo concerto that I wanted to play yet, so I decided to write it. It felt like a great opportunity to begin developing repertoire for banjoists and classical musicians to collaborate on. Performing in front of a symphony orchestra is an amazing experience and shows the banjo in a different light.

Your 1988 bluegrass album Drive is a favorite. Do you think bluegrass is something you’ll ever revisit in earnest?

I love bluegrass and still consider it my center. Even when I don’t get the chance to play it much, it still informs everything I do. And the rules of that music give me guidelines for understanding all other musical forms. I waited 10 years after Drive to make The Bluegrass Sessions, with essentially the same personnel. Now it’s been almost 10 years since The Bluegrass Sessions, so it’s time. I hope I’ll have something new to say, and something different to bring to the music when I make a bluegrass-oriented CD again. It’s on my mind and certainly will happen in the near future.

The last time you were in town, it was with the Flecktones at the Pavilion. What’s the outlook on the next time the group will record or play shows?

Flecktones are happily pursuing their separate agendas presently, but the band will reform again in the next couple of years. Exactly when, and what form that will take is yet to be decided, but we do all stay in touch, are on wonderful terms, and look forward to pulling our spaceships into the same orbit again soon.

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