Catching Up With Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Music Features Abigail Washburn

You’d find little debate about calling Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn the king and queen of the banjo—Fleck, a master who has taken the instrument across multiple genres, and Washburn as someone who re-radicalized it by combining it with Far East culture and sounds. As the story goes, the two met each other at a square dance, eventually fell in love, played together in a quartet alongside Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen, got married and would occasionally pop up in each other’s solo shows. But it wasn’t until last year’s Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn LP that the two finally made it musically official.

Paste: Ten years together and you finally make a record. What took so long? What’s the story there?
Béla Fleck: Life got in the way. I mean, there was the Sparrow Quartet.

Paste: Great album.
Fleck: Thank you. I’d like to hear it again. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to it. We put a lot into it. My little brother said it was our love child when he first listened to it. Now we have an actual love child.
Abigail Washburn: I guess that’s the ultimate answer why this record now. Because, well, we got pregnant. We knew all along that we really did eventually want to make a duo record together, but I can say that I had a lot of concerns about my career not being substantial enough to pair with Béla. Neither of us wanted me to be the unknown girlfriend or wife that nobody knew that was coming along.
Fleck: I think that was more your concern. I always felt that if people heard us together they would understand why I was playing with you and thank me for exposing them to you. But I think it’s better that we waited because Abby does have a lot of strength now in the music world completely dissociated with me. So bringing us together definitely is a more substantial event to a lot of people and has helped propel this project.
Washburn: It takes a long time unless you have a huge hit or you’re that band in that year.
Fleck: I think we would have waited longer if we hadn’t had the baby.
Washburn: I think that’s true. I think so.
Fleck: But I’ve been pushing for it for quite a while.

Paste: But there is the Sparrow Quartet, so that did exist.
Fleck: And that was really a wonderful experience. But everybody went on to do things. Everybody was busy, and also I think it was something about our coupling that, because there were four people and everybody was strong and equal, our couplehood wasn’t a major part of it. It was kept out of it.
Washburn: We were trying very hard not to have us being a couple be annoying in that band.
Fleck: Yeah, when you’re a couple and you have a band around you, those other people become outsiders or something. So it felt like if we were going to do something together that was really us two, it really needed to be just us two.
Washburn: But I can’t tell you how lucky we feel every day when we’re on the road with our baby on the bus.

Paste: What a cool way to grow up.
Washburn: I hope so.

Paste: He probably doesn’t know any different at this point.
Fleck: Every day is Disneyland. He just goes from one amazing day to the next.

Paste: Hopefully he’ll recognize that at some point. What a cool trip.
Washburn: I think so.
Fleck: Because we love it.
Washburn: We adore it. He’s surrounded by people who are passionate. We love the people we’re touring with.

Paste: It’s led to this great record. I’ve heard the story that it starts with “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad.” You find these traditional songs, something that you both have lots of experience with, but I don’t imagine you sit around with your iPod listening to centuries-old songs. But they’re such a part of your life, these old-timey songs.
Fleck: They sort of show up periodically. Abby finds a song, she’s like, “I just want to do that.” Some of these songs go back to Sparrow days. “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” Abby started singing that in Sparrow. We didn’t record it, but it was one of the songs she sang. When it came time to record, since we didn’t have a lot of time to spend doing creative stuff because of the baby, “Why don’t we start out recording whatever is around that we both feel passionate about?” There were several songs like that. One was “Heaven,” one was “Shotgun.” “Pretty Polly” we had done.

Paste: Great example there. You take “Pretty Polly” and “Railroad” and you have these songs that have been done to death to a point. But you still find new ways. How do you make it so different? Because I’ve heard “Pretty Polly” done the same way a million times, but it’s not the way you do it. And “Railroad,” it seems like it’s a completely different song. It just happens to have all the words we’re familiar with.
Fleck: That was one of the last songs we worked up was “Railroad.”
Washburn: It was a real surprise. Juno was six or seven months old and he was just starting to sit up at the table. One morning, he sort of hit his hand on the table and liked the sound of it and the way it felt. So he did it again. Then I started hitting the table with him and he started hitting with me. We were having so much fun and all of a sudden, I started singing, “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad,” but it came out a little different. It came out as this sort of bluesy kind of thing.
Fleck: I call home later that day and Abby says “Hey Juno, let’s show Daddy what we did today.” And I said, “That’s really cool and we need to do that song. That’s a great idea.” Abby wasn’t thinking that seriously about it.
Washburn: It would have just come and gone. I wouldn’t have even remembered we did that.

Paste: And so you start thinking of the different chords that would go along with it.
Fleck: Once we started getting into it, the next tour we started doing it with almost no arrangements. By the end of the tour we started refining it and coming up with a real arrangement, and when we got home we recorded it.

Paste: Pete Seeger wouldn’t recognize this version, but I don’t think he’d be upset.
Washburn: I think we both feel that old-timey tradition is an oral tradition and one that gets passed down. It’s a sign of respect to do the music of your elders. I don’t think we’d ever think they were worn out or too old or overdone.
Fleck: They are—only if you do them in an imitated fashion are they worn out, because you’re not expressing who you are through the song. But if you can find a way to be yourself in an old song, great!
Washburn: One of the really positive things about our collaboration is that it’s very unique. We can’t think of another full album of three finger and clawhammer banjo playing together.
Fleck: Even without the singing. Without the original songs that Abby brings.
Washburn: We can’t think of a whole album like that. Certainly people have done those combinations just here or there for one track or something, but it’s just unique. It’s a very unique configuration, and we took advantage of that as soon as we sat down to think about how we’re going to make this record. We knew immediately, only two banjos all the time.
Fleck: Yeah, it wasn’t going to be produced, we weren’t going to bring in a lot of guests to fill it out. I guess my little point that I bring up in some of these interviews is the banjo has a magic to it when you’re up close. There’s a magic field that comes out of the banjo when you play it clawhammer or three-finger. It’s very beautiful. Usually the only person who gets to experience it is the player. Maybe somebody that’s as close as you are. Once you get a little further, you don’t get that magic field. Once you start blending it in with a lot of other instruments, that magic field gets dampened down and diminished by all the surrounding instruments and frequencies, which takes those frequencies and you don’t hear them anymore. So our goal was to keep that magic field of the two banjos, which we get when we sit real close together and play and the sound blends, and let everybody hear how complex and interesting and big that sound is. Find a way to record that sound because that’s really when we amplify on the live show, we’re trying to do the same thing, to make that sound as loud as it is when you’re this close. Not to try to blast you with it or be loud, to make it sound like you were as close to the instrument as we are. It’s not a super quiet instrument. It’s got a lot of dynamic range. And when we play with a flatpick, it’s really loud. The clawhammer could be a lot louder than bluegrass playing because you have your whole hand banging on it. Bluegrass is not that loud, and it was really built around a microphone.

Paste: Do you think with this album, and knowing that you were going to do a duo album at some point anyway anyway, but did having your son have influence on these songs? And will he in the future? Juno grows up and gets bigger and suddenly you’re getting Disney-fied. When does the Disney album come in when you’re doing old-timey versions of Frozen?
Washburn: Ha! It might happen.
Fleck: That sounds horrible to me, but sounds great to Abby because she loves animated children’s movies.

Paste: You watch. One of these days she’s going to slip it in there. It’s going to be different chords, but it’s going to be those words.

[Washburn proceeds to start singing “Let It Go”]

Fleck: I don’t even know what song that is.

Paste: You could do “Whistle While You Work.” That’s how it could come together. And eventually you could put together a variety show. A family band.
Washburn: That would be a blast. But we also are always saying to ourselves and everyone we talk to that he’s his own person.
Fleck: He can play any style of banjo he wants.

Paste: There’s your parameters, kid.
Fleck: Anything at all. Even a five-string.

Paste: So you both still do stay busy on your own, separately.
Fleck: Not as much. We’re really making this the focal point. If it’s something you can’t turn down, like I have some tour dates with Chick Corea. And when Chick Corea calls and says “let’s do some playing…”

Paste: You say “yes.”
Fleck: Absolutely. Because I love playing with him. It’s a learning experience. It’s a growth experience in every way, and Abby is behind me on that. And when she gets certain things, [like] the other day she spoke at UNC Chapel Hill.
Washburn: An event for students that are going to be student ambassadors overseas. And because of my China experience, sometimes I get called in to speak and play and perform for people on the verge or who are involved in that cross-cultural world. To me it’s a piece of what we do when we travel around the country. Even though we do some Chinese material, it’s not a big piece of it, but it’s something my mind likes to engage.
Fleck: It’s a big piece of who you are, and I think a lot of the other parts of who you are are serviced with our duo. You get to sing and play the traditional stuff and your own songs, but that aspect is something you don’t want to disappear. Like my connection with the jazz world or the classical world. I’m writing another banjo concerto, and I have a lot of old friends that I still want to play with, but we’re still keeping those things.
Washburn: They’re a peripheral part of what we’re doing in general at the moment.

Paste: There’s a part of what you do, too. Abby, you mention China and Béla, everything you do with Africa. I wonder if you think of yourself as activists. Because when both of you go to these places, it’s more than music. You’ve helped out people in China, donations. What you were doing in Africa was more about the origins of the banjo. It seems like there was more of a humanitarian aspect to it. Do you think of yourselves in that way, that it’s more than music and you’re changing the world?
Fleck: I think Abby thinks that way more than I do. I’m very hesitant to make any claims along those lines just because I don’t want to be asked to defend them. But it feels really great when you do something that’s bigger than you. Teaching feels really good that way. Growing awareness between different people feels really good. Every time either of us have had a chance to interact with musicians with other countries, sometimes in front of dignitaries or ambassadors, you feel like communication is improved. When they see the way that musicians do it and what you can achieve with music, music can be very uplifting.

Paste: But you keep the politics separate.
Fleck: Yeah, I’m not promoting any particular agenda, except communication and openness to each other is beautiful thing.
Washburn: I’m probably a little more vocal about the fact that I think that it’s really important for cultural aspect of culture, art, music, expression that’s focused on beauty and sharing. I just think it’s just so important for that to become a part of the communal conversation about what we’re going to do with the future of the world. Really I do. But I don’t think that it’s a political statement. That’s just saying that politics isn’t actually giving us all the answers that we need, so let’s look to the other places where there’s more creative juice and a deeper well.

Paste: The great thing about music, that you can do that without saying, “2016..whoever,” it doesn’t have to be about that. You can make it more the humanitarian thing.
Fleck: Absolutely. The stakes are different too. You’re not getting together to solve a problem between countries that’s life and death. You get together to play with musicians. There’s an openness and warmth. Abby has some great experience with musicians that didn’t think it was a great thing to be collaborating with American musicians in China and was able to knock that bridge down. You start in your backyard with you and the people you’re around, and every person you run into that you helped to be more open to our culture to see us more than what we’re presented as by their government, that sort of thing, that feels real good. There are a lot of misconceptions about America, and there are a lot of true things that people think about Americans that unfortunately that we don’t think about ourselves. But it feels really good to show them that we’re all breathing the same air. That we’re trying to be good people.

Paste: It’s one of the great things about being fans of both of you. It’s getting that side of it, like a 3D relationship that goes beyond putting the record on and sitting back.
Washburn: I think our next record should be titled This Shit Is 3D.

Paste: Oh, I hope so so bad.
Fleck: Just to continue that thought, loving the banjo and going through being a banjo player for years and years, it either puts a chip on your shoulder or makes you feel like an underdog. Even if you’re doing really well, you feel like, “Hey I’ve got to protect the honor of this thing that I love so much.”

Paste: Even if it becomes the popular instrument of the year.
Fleck: People say “What do you think about it?” I don’t know, but five years from now, I’ll still be doing my thing. We’ll still be doing our thing. So I’m a little cautious about jumping on the bandwagon and celebrating victory too soon because these things happen in waves.
Washburn: I don’t know if our goals are for the banjo to be become the mainstay of pop music. I mean it’s fine if it does.
Fleck: People should make their own great music on whatever instrument they want, and if they love the banjo, they should make should make their music with the banjo. But don’t be afraid of it. With the orchestra stuff that I’ve been doing, it’s been nice to take the banjo out of its cultural stereotype and like put it into a completely different place and not try to play anything with a country or bluegrass sound within an orchestral concept, just use the sound. The sound itself is very different from any other instrument. Sometimes it’s nice to do that.

Paste: We should talk about How To Write A Banjo Concerto. Watching the trailer where you mentioned that even Louis Armstrong had the banjo in his band, all these ways of not thinking about it in its normal context. Where is the horizon where genres finally break down? That seems to be the crusade for your entire career. Going to back when CD stores were commonplace, it was all about genre. For a lot of listeners’ mindset, it is about genre, and that doesn’t look to have ever been your thing. Banjo and jazz. Banjo and classical. It’s just a different way that people have always listened to music versus how you’re perceived it.For you, does it all blend together?
Fleck: Why can’t they be like different languages? If you have good enough vocabulary in enough languages, you can have a conversation. If i have enough jazz vocabulary, I can go have a conversation with a jazz musician without speaking. But if I bring the bluegrass elements in there, too, they’re probably going to find that pretty unique. Some might go, “Stop playing that yee-haw crap,” but others might go, “well that’s cool.” So you find the ones that can deal with who you really are. Edgar Meyer said something once that I always thought was good, that there’s more that’s similar about all the different kinds of music than is different. I think that’s a really good point. But I think the differences are very interesting and should be respected. We’re not looking for everything to be a flat line where all musics have the exact same amount of harmony, improvisation, same tonal sound, same instruments. That would be pretty drab.
Washburn: Boring.
Fleck: We want to respect all these strong musical forces that we’ve loved so much that we’re still talking about. The Beethovens, the Bachs, the Bill Monroes, the Earl Scruggses, the Charlie Parkers or the Mile Davises.

Paste: There is the idea that you can bridge Beethoven to The Beatles.
Fleck: Not everybody can, but some people are good at it. The idea as fusion as an end is idiotic. Sorry. It’s how well it’s done. If it’s done artfully, it can be absolutely the greatest thing ever. If it’s done not-so-artfully, it can be a shame for everybody.
Washburn: It is. Fusion being the endgame is a homogenizer. It’s ugly.
Fleck: There’s a lot of music done when suddenly there would be Spanish guys playing with tabla guys. There would be all these different things, and it seemed like it was a really great way to have a successful record at the time on New Age radio, even on jazz radio. Some of it, I thought was brilliant. A lot of it, I thought that they’re not really…I think the key to a great collaboration is everyone has to change. You don’t just do your thing together. It’s like a mashup on the Grammys. Nothing wrong with that, but a higher level is if they both have to change to play with each other.
Washburn: And to learn a bit of each other’s language.
Fleck: Yeah. But then again, you’re getting down to our personal tastes about what we decide, what we judge is good and not good about someone else’s collaboration, that’s just personal taste. Everybody’s got taste. So everybody out there has to make their own decision about what they like. That’s the whole game. That’s what so interesting about it, it’s a moving target. It’s different for everybody.

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