Béla Fleck: Still Fighting the Banjo

by Michael Todd

One has to wonder if Béla Fleck has lost count, or if he ever attempted to tally the number of albums he’s helped create.

With his Flecktones, his instrumental interstellar bluegrass band, he’s a respectable 14 records. But among his solo work, his time with the progressive bluegrass of New Grass Revival, collaborations with musicians such as pianist Chick Corea, Phish and Dave Matthews Band, 14 records represents only about 14 percent of his compiled discography.

And oh, there are the 14 Grammy awards, too.

In the past year, though, the bulk of Fleck’s attention has shifted from trips to Africa to discover the roots of his instrument, the banjo, from worldwide tours and classical works, and it’s landed squarely on his family and its newest member: Juno, his 8-month-old baby boy. Good thing his wife, Abigail Washburn, is a musician, too.

This Thursday, Feb. 13, Fleck and Washburn play Lincoln’s Lied Center with The Del McCoury Band. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $25-$45.

Below, he tells us about creating repertoire for his instrument in the classical world, touring with his wife, Abigail Washburn, and 8-month-old baby boy, and how he’s a lifetime student.

Hear Nebraska: Tell me about your early banjo mentors, musicians such as Erik Darling, Marc Horowitz and Tony Trishka. What did they teach you that still has a great impact today?

Bela Fleck: I was so fortunate to have three great teachers. One led sequentially to the other. Erik started me out in more of the folk styles, Marc taught me about all the great bluegrass players, and Tony taught me to see the unlimited possibilities that the banjo offers. They’ve all had a lasting impact on me.

HN: As one of the world’s most virtuosic banjo players, what have you learned recently that has improved your playing?

BF: Writing a banjo concerto “The Impostor” and a string quintet “Night Flight Over Water” gave me the chance to develop banjo music that has challenged me technically in many ways. This is some of the hardest music I’ve played, and it’s no one’s fault but my own!

HN: Tell me about your 1937 Gibson Mastertone banjo. Why did it resonate with you more than other banjos you’ve had?

BF: The 1930s Gibson Mastertones are fantastic, very sought-after instruments. Most banjos players would love to have one of these. And the style 75, a mahogony instrument, is particularly responsive and sweet-sounding. The fact that I’ve played it constantly since 1981 has made it very lively.

The more you play an instrument, the better it sounds.

HN: This year, you’re scheduled to play in 26 states, from Texas to Alaska, and that’s only through June. Tell me what you’ve learned about your family through touring that you might not have otherwise.

BF: It’s definitely harder to be away now that Abby and I have our little 8-month-old baby boy, Juno.

The lovely thing about touring with Abby is that we bring Juno and a nanny with us, and keep our family intact. I sure appreciate and miss them when I’m away on my own touring, which I’m trying to do less of these days.

HN: In what ways does your musical communication with Abby help your relationship with her?

BF: We love playing shows together and realizing that we can do a show that really communicates with just the two of us. So that gives us confidence as a couple.

Musically, we’ve always connected naturally. It was almost too easy for us to take seriously. We were waiting for the right time to allow it to flower, and the time is now!

HN: How do you think you’ve influenced the perception of the banjo in today’s musical landscape?

BF: That’s a better question for you to ask someone else. I’m busy doing it, and my confused ego doesn’t know how to talk about what I’ve been up to with any clarity.

I do still love playing the banjo, and exploring different musical forms. I am a lifetime student.

HN: What are some of your biggest personal goals for the next few years of your music career?

BF: One big piece of it is bringing my musical relationship with Abby to the front, and let our duo music grow. It’s filling a big hole for me, in terms of playing music with some traditional aspects, vocal music (which I never get to do anymore) and relationally, as our couple hood deepens.

Another biggy is focusing on creating repertoire for banjo in the classical world. I have been commissioned to write three pieces now, and I hope to continue to write for as many different interesting configurations as I can think of. This will result in written music that can be a way for other banjoists to interact with classical musicians.

The banjo is an underdog, and I guess I’m still fighting for it to be taken seriously. This could be one piece of the puzzle.

Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. When your bandmate goes by Future Man, and your name is still incredible: That’s when you know you were blessed. Reach Michael at michaeltodd@hearnebraska.org.

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