Bound by Banjos

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn find their own old-school sound


For Bela Fleck, his love affair with folk music started early. As a young boy living in New York City, Fleck saw the Beverly Hillbillies on television in the '60s and was blown away—not by the redneck stereotypes, but the opening theme music, performed by Earl Scruggs.

"It was the truest sound I had ever heard and I didn't even know what it was," Fleck said with a chuckle. "I heard the banjo, it was Earl Scruggs, and it just turned me on. When I finally got a banjo, I just couldn't stop playing it."

It has been 42 years since Fleck first picked up a banjo at age 15. He has been playing professionally since graduating from New York City's High School of Music and Art, where he studied under Tony Trischka. In that time he has built a career in New Grass Revival, then with his band, the Flecktones. He has played with the Dave Matthews Band, on experimental collaborations and, most recently, in a duet with his wife and fellow banjo player, Abigail Washburn. After releasing music together with Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee in the Sparrow Quartet, Washburn and Fleck made their first album together in 2014.

Now, Fleck and Washburn are bringing their duo to Boise, with a Monday, Feb. 8 performance at the Egyptian Theatre.

The partnership wasn't as intuitive as one might think.

"I had friends that said you should never work with Abby because you guys are so good together you'll destroy it," he said. "In our particular case, we both felt like it was going to be OK and it has been. Not that there aren't things that you gain and lose from being around each other this much, but the gain seems to be way, way on the high side."

That's the experience for listeners, who are treated to a double banjo attack and Washburn's haunting vocals on a dozen bluegrass tracks, including traditional tunes like "Railroad" (as in, "I've been working on the railroad..."). It was a nice return for Fleck, who in the past dozen years has explored African, classical, jazz and Christmas songs in collaborations with Chick Corea, Marcus Roberts and Zakir Hussain, among others.

The two have a keen instrumental interplay that is made even more interesting by the differences in Fleck's and Washburn's playing styles.

"With Abby it's a return to more folk and bluegrass oriented stuff but it still requires a lot of creativity because the clawhammer banjo that she plays and the three finger-style that I play don't typically go together," Fleck says. "So trying to find a way to make a complete sound with those two instruments is a pretty creative endeavor, but a lot of fun and very natural."

The difference in their playing styles is not the only musical peculiarity between them. They also have different working styles. Washburn is more intuitive and Fleck is a bit more exacting, owing to his more hands-on style.

"She tends to be more grounded and I tend to throw myself at things, make a lot of noise, and crash and bang around and then gradually bang a shape out of a stone, where she just thinks and thinks and thinks and then takes out a pencil and writes something kind of perfect," Fleck said.

It took time to find a happy medium. Their first attempt didn't end so well.

"I was so driven and so picky about things, and the first time someone said, 'Hey could you and Abby do an overdub?' I was producing her and helping her get a vocal track to sing harmony on, I think it was the Duhks record," he said. "It was very uncomfortable for both of us because I was saying, 'I think you're a little sharp on that note,' and she started crying saying, 'I can't take this, it's too intense.'

"When I think back at this it's so crazy because we're really good at telling each other now and not getting our feelings hurt," Fleck added. "If she says, 'I think you're playing too busy,' I don't go, 'How dare you,' I go, 'Let me see what I can do.'"

The partnership has been driven in part by their 8-year old son, who joins them on the road.

"We always wanted to do this at some point but part of why we decided to do it now was so I'm not flitting around all the time, jetting all over the world, such that I'm not a part of his life," Fleck said. "That's a big piece of this, like the build of the duo is also the solidifying of your family and making sure that I'm not an absentee father, which I do not want to be, having experienced that myself from the other side."

Though Fleck hints at a difficult childhood, he did have father figures to look up to.

When he was coming up in the late '70s and early '80s, "new-grass" artists like David Grisman and Sam Bush had already carved out a niche. Like purists in other styles, bluegrass lovers were forced to choose between keeping the style alive and preserving an old order.

"There were a lot of angry letter from bluegrass fans to the magazines about this new fangled crap, that it was just not what they loved about bluegrass music, which I understand. I can relate," Fleck said.

As he's become comfortable in his career and as a musician, he has come to a similar crossroads. Where once Fleck dismissed music that didn't serve his pursuits, now he's found a softer spot for music he would never make himself.

"I understand as someone who has a very, I don't want to say 'elitist,' but very strong opinions about what I do and don't like about music," he said. "I applied them to myself rigorously, but at one point it occurred to me that the more fervent I was about what I did and didn't like, the less stuff I was going to get to like. I've been trying to embrace that point of view now."