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Banjo superhero Béla Fleck talks about Keswick Theatre concert, new music with his wife, banjo chic

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STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN

bbingaman@21st-centurymedia.com

@brianbingaman on Twitter

It’s always an adventure with Béla Fleck.
A specialist in surprising people with the versatility of the banjo, his latest recording is “Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn,” a folk-flavored banjo duet with wife.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Photo by Jim McGuire.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Photo by Jim McGuire.

Fleck answered a couple questions by email, offering a compelling glimpse into his family life, and at an upcoming area concert featuring the couple.
Not only are you and Abigail making music, but we get the bonus of David Bromberg and Larry Campbell playing during the concert on April 10 at the Keswick Theatre. How cool is that? Is this just a one-off “Evening of Duets,” or will there be other shows on the tour that include David and Larry?
We are doing a pair of shows with David and Larry. And we’re really looking forward to sharing a night with them. We hope to play some things together; I’d be pretty surprised if we didn’t find a way to pull that off. The Keswick will be the first of the two shows, so we should be marvelously unprepared — a recipe for a great evening.
Besides playing with Abigail, you’ve collaborated with lots of other musicians. John Oates’ song “Ghost Town,” New Grass Revival, David Grisman, and Jerry Douglas immediately come to mind. Who have been your absolute favorite people to play with, other than your wife?
I love playing in duo with Chick Corea, in trio with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, my collaborations with Toumani Diabate and my many other African musician compadres, and I can’t forget the incredible Philadelphia Orchestra, who I was fortunate enough to perform my banjo concerto with.
My musical life is very rich, and I have left out as many great musical friends as I have included in this list!
Was it easy or hard to write songs with Abigail?
We had a pretty good process, and in fact there were only a few that we co-wrote, maybe four on this album. Because we also included some pieces we each had written separately, as well as some traditional material, it was a little less overwhelming than trying to create a whole album of original co-written material. Now that we know how to do it, and that we can, we hope to write much more together.
We did disagree on one set of lyrics, and eventually sent the two versions to several impartial friends for opinions. Luckily they all agreed, and that was the tie breaker.
Besides Abigail’s voice being front and center, how else is this album different from the Béla Fleck solo/Flecktones stuff?
There is much more of a traditional sound here than I have explored in a long time, I guess, since 1996’s “Bluegrass Sessions” project.
The two banjos give the impression of an old sound, but the truth is more complex.
Three-finger players like me, and claw-hammer players like Abby very rarely play together, so we did have some work to do figuring out how to make a cohesive sound between the two styles.
The duo format gives me tons of room to have playing space and influence, where if it were a larger group playing vocals, it would be harder for it to feel equal between us. Vocals really pull the listener hard in a direction, and the more instruments surrounding the vocal, the less important each instrument is. So for this album, we were looking for it to feel like a duo, not Abby’s record with me in the background. We did do a project together some years back called “The Sparrow Quartet,” with cellist Ben Sollee and violinist Casey Driessen, and all of us put the voice front and center, taking equal roles but always subservient to the song.
It sounds like you performed the folk songs “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Dinah” on the record in a minor key. What was the inspiration behind that?
That came from a day when Abby was singing and playing around with our son, Juno, who was less than a year old at the time. She was teaching him to beat on the table in rhythm and she starting singing that song in a minor key. She showed me how Juno was beating on the table and I said, “Hey we should work up that song!”


You two use the banjo as percussion on the song “Shotgun Blues.” Isn’t that bad for the instrument to beat on it like that?
I hope not, we’ve been doing it for quite a while now! Like a snare drum, you can make a pretty big sound without hitting it that hard. And we mic. it up to make it sound huge, but I don’t believe we’re hurting anything. We might need a new head a little sooner on them.
How did you and Abigail meet?
We met at a square dance in Nashville. I was jamming with the band, and she was out on the floor dancing. She lit up the room, and I noticed.
How has being the parent of a baby affected your creative process? How long did it take to make this album?
We made the album in small chunks when he was asleep, mostly! His naps gave us a couple of good hours in the studio usually, and it was very fortunate that the studio was in our basement. The engineer had to be very patient with us.
How long ago did you and Abigail start playing together? Has it changed your relationship?
We started playing together at family gatherings for her nephews and nieces. Eventually her grandma asked us to play a benefit show at her church, and no one said no to Grandma! It went so well that we knew we would someday do a lot more of it.
The relationship seems to be able to handle our professional relationship. Some couples should not work together, but we have a great time together and achieve things that strengthen our couple-hood.
With the band Mumford & Sons bringing banjo into mainstream pop music, is the instrument getting more respect?
It does seem to be outgrowing the stereotypes that were holding it down for so long.
People now see it as an amazing and thriving connection to history, and are excited about it generally.
Mumford are just one of many groups including banjo in mainstream music, it’s used often these days to make the music feel more grounded.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, country music radio avoided it like the plague, because they wanted to sound modern, and not too hillbilly. But now even they use it to show that they are connected to tradition. It’s very ironic.
I am just happy that I get to play it, and generally draw a crowd that loves it like I do.
See you soon!

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “An Evening of Duets” with Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn and David Bromberg & Larry Campbell.
WHEN: 8 p.m. April 10.
WHERE: Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside.
TICKETS: $38.50 and $48.50.
INFO: Call (215) 572-7650 or visit www.keswicktheatre.com.

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