String Master


Talking with Béla Fleck.

By Lindsey Lowe Osborne

It was the banjo of a Mr. Earl Scruggs—a banjoist who popularized the “Scruggs style” three-finger pick—that changed everything. Now one of the premier banjoists in the world, Béla Fleck was just a 5-year-old boy when he heard Scruggs’s banjo, but even then, the banjo’s bright, folksy song called to him. “It made a huge impact, even though I was a New York City kid,” Fleck says of the experience. “And my big brother and I were huge music fans as kids—into all the new music of the time. The 1960s were a great time to grow up for kids into music. I know it sounds banal, but sometimes music chooses you.”

Fleck, who’s taken home 16 Grammys, received his first banjo from his grandfather when he was 15.  He launched himself onto a journey with the banjo and together they have played hot newgrass, traditional bluegrass, otherworldly funk, modern jazz, African originals, transatlantic Celtic, and classical realms, as well as two self-composed banjo concertos (The Impostor and Juno Concerto), with a third one in the works. Fleck has been nominated for more Grammys than any other instrumentalist in Grammy history.

Soon after high school graduation—and not long after receiving the first banjo—he joined the group Tasty Licks and recorded two albums with them. After a stint with a band named Spectrum, Fleck joined New Grass Revival, with whom he performed for nine years; he also recorded his second solo album, Drive, during this time, which was nominated for a Grammy. In 1988, Fleck formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones with bandmates Victor Wooten, Howard Levy, and Roy Wooten. Their second album, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. The Flecktones most recently toured in 2011.

Twelve years ago, Fleck met Abigail Washburn, also a banjo player, at a square dance—she was dancing, he was playing. As they say, the rest is history, and in addition to now being married, they also tour together with their son, Juno. “This particular band, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, began as a love story—cheesy but true!” Fleck says. “Abby and I got together and were happy enough being a couple when her granny booked a gig for us at her church without telling us! Now we had to find a way to perform together. We had played a couple of tunes at Christmas for her family, but that was it. To our surprise, it was very easy and we had good chemistry on stage together. When we had our boy, Juno, we decided to combine forces and really do the duet touring thing, and bring Juno with us.”

The two are collaborating more than ever on their second album, Echo in the Valley, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning eponymous debut album. Echo is different because Fleck and Washburn took their collaboration even deeper, this time writing many of the songs of Echo together, instead of designating songs as his or hers. “This time, we really wanted to truly write together,” Fleck explains.  “We spent a lot of our time on the lyrics, deciding what we want the songs to communicate, both literally and under the surface.” For Echo, their mission was to take their double banjo combination of three finger and clawhammer styles “to the next level and find things to do together that we had not done before,” says Fleck.  “We’re expressing different emotions through past techniques and going to deeper places.”

The result will cause your breath to catch in your throat—it’s music in the truest sense of the word—achingly beautiful melody, the sort of thing that could change the life of someone listening, not unlike it once did for 5-year-old Fleck. “[Music] is the prism through which I experience life,” he says. “I do intend and hope for it to communicate humanity and convey a positive energy, perhaps even provide some catharsis for people.”

Catch Fleck and Washburn at the Lyric Theatre on March 30.

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