Duo-ing Banjos: Fleck and Washburn Make It a Family Affair

Abigail Washburn grew up a suburban girl obsessed with China and it was that winding silk road the ultimately led her to the very American world of folk and bluegrass music.

How’s that for a road less traveled?

     It starts in the suburbs of Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C. and later Minnesota during her high school years. By 19, she’d been to China for the first time and had become the first East Asian Studies major at Colorado College. It was in Colorado where she started dating a musician and fell in with a group obsessed with bluegrass and old time music.

Then came the first turn in her winding road. At a party one night someone put on Doc Watson’s solo version of “Shady Grove.”

       To her in that moment, it was an answer and a challenge, an answer to a question that plagued her during her journeys in China and a challenge to follow an unexpected path.
On her travels, she often was asked by Chinese friends to describe American culture. “I was not good at it,” she says. “I just wasn’t really sure how to describe what was so special about America.”

She would tell them it was a diverse culture of people from countries all over the world. But that night at that party when Doc Watson’s voice sang over his banjo picking, she had a revelation. “I was totally struck by it,” she says. “I thought to myself there’s something in there that’s American. It’s eternal, but American. I have to learn what it’s about. I think maybe the answer to my Chinese friends is in this music.”

The banjo, imported from Africa, was the heart of American music when combined with the fiddling of the Irish and the Scots. It was the dance music of the plantation and the foundations of blues and bluegrass and of jazz and R&B.     

       “It’s a living tradition I have to share,” she says.

Washburn brings that tradition with her husband, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, to a duo show at the Williamsburg Lodge on May 24 as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. The tour with Fleck, her husband, is the result of another collaboration, the son they had last year. His birth prodded them into playing together, something they’ve wanted to do for years.

It’s the latest turn in Washburn’s fantastical career that began when learning about old time music and clawhammer banjo playing became a parallel track, a twin rail to her fascination with China, one obsession feeding the other. That and one chance encounter after another — a remarkable string of good fortune — landed her where she is today, a songwriter, picker and singer with a body of eclectic work, married to Fleck, and finally working on their first duo album together.

When she decided to immerse herself in the music, she studied with Riley Baugus, the Walkertown, North Carolina, picker whose work can be heard on the “Cold Mountain” sound track and on albums by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant and Willie Nelson. She stayed in his trailer for a week, leaning his stylings. “I was just over the moon hearing him sing,” she says.

Learning about it didn’t mean dabbling to Washburn. She’s not that kind of person. Not when it comes to her passions.
The first time she went to China in 1996, she hated it. “I thought it was so unpleasant. So polluted. People yelling at me, so loud and noisy. No personal space. I got sick from the pollution,” she says. The language was impossible, even though she’d studied it for a year prior to her trip. She couldn’t speak to anyone. She was lonely.

“I thought maybe I just need to not go there again because I didn’t like it,” she says. “But my personality is such that I couldn’t leave it there, couldn’t leave it on a superficial level. So I wanted to find a way I could go a little deeper, see if maybe there’s something there. “

She went back; she couldn’t shake the place. Standing in front of the student dormitory, she watched an old lady with cataracts running after a tow-headed child. The woman invites her to dinner. Over months, Old Lady Wang fed her dumplings and read her poetry. She told her about the Cultural Revolution and how one son died in a work camp. She was mentor and grandmother.

     “I fell madly in love with her and then madly in love with China,” Washburn says.

She returned and eventually found herself at Middlebury College in Vermont studying Mandarin 12 hours a day. Asked, on a whim, if it was harder to learn Mandarin or the banjo, she links the two. Again. “They are just connected in my life,” she says. “I started learning Mandarin four years before I picked up the banjo. I would study 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., sitting at a desk drawing characters and reading characters and it was full immersion. I had this incredible training, listening to sounds and repeating them. When I sat down to play the banjo, I had this incredibly built skill set hearing a sound and repeating it and doing it quickly.”

Abigail Washburn & Bela Fleck
“So I can’t separate them in my mind,” she adds. “The foundation I built learning Mandarin has aided my ability to be a musician.”

Her plan was to move to China, study law at a university there, and then find her way into some sort of international law career. “I was one of those angst-y people who thought a lot about life so law appealed to me as a way people in different countries hope to govern. I thought it would be a really interesting way to understand the Chinese mind and how they governed. I was on my way there. It just didn’t happen.”
What happened was her boyfriend got an opportunity in Nashville and Washburn decided to take a road trip on her way there before moving ultimately to China. She went to the fiddlers gathering at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia. She dropped in on the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Kentucky though she knew only a few songs. She was jamming with a couple of other women in the hallway when she and another woman were offered a record deal with Sugar Hill on the spot.

It didn’t work out because the other musician declined the deal. “I was a crappy musician,” she says. “Understandably, she didn’t want to do it.”

     But that night changed Washburn’s course. She moved to Nashville anyway. One morning, she was in line at a coffee shop when the woman in front of her turned around and complimented the shirt she’d bought at a vintage store. She wondered if Washburn was a musician and asked her to send a demo. The woman was an A&R rep for Nettwerk Records. The company came back with a $40,000 deal.

“I could take it as just pure luck or as a challenge life was giving me to make it happen,” she says. “I was also grieving not going to China (recently) when I got the music offer. But I thought I’ve got to do this. This is unbelievable. I’ve got to try this even though I’m really crappy at it. I know I’ll get better. I took on the challenge.”
She joined the all-female group, Uncle Earl, which released several albums, including “Waterloo, TN,” produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

In 2004, she was at a square dance in Nashville where Fleck was playing. He later told her it was the only time he’d played at one. “We became friends and he found out about me making a record,” she recalls. “He offered to help with some of “Traveling Daughter” (her solo debut), became a co-producer on the record and then all of a sudden we were together, eager to find ways to do things together so we could spend time together.”

“Song of the Traveling Daughter” was released to raves in 2005. It included songs she wrote in Mandarin. She credits her label for not balking at including them. “As soon as I knew I wasn’t going to do the Chinese stuff, go to school and try to do the law thing,” she says, “I started incorporating Chinese into my music. It was natural.”

It’s part of the conversation she wants to start with her audience, the effect she wants to have. She sees folk as a way to begin discussions, externally and internally, that might otherwise not happen.

“Whatever kind of transformation the audience needs to have happen in life as a result of what I could offer them, I wanted that to start,” Washburn says. “Whether it was a conversation in words or a conversation internally between heart and mind. I think the conversation that’s even more important is that internal dialogue, the one we all have about what our purpose is here.”

Washburn continued to play with Uncle Earl and continued to travel to China. She returned to the country in 2005 with a group that featured Ben Sollee, fiddler Casey Driessen, and Fleck.

“He said, ‘Can I be in your band?’ ” she remembers. “All I said was ‘Are you sure?’ ”

      The band, The Sparrow Quartet, recorded an album produced by Fleck and toured festivals before returning to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Washburn’s passion about the land led to “Afterquake,” an EP to benefit the Sichuan Quake Relief, released one year after the quake. With her band, she performed at schools, universities, and theaters throughout China, collaborating with local musicians, much as Fleck did in Africa for his documentary, “Deep in the Heart.”

For Washburn and Fleck, their varied interests cross-pollinated at home. “I think we’re really like loving advisers to each other, ” she says. “I certainly learned a ton more about West African and Ugandan and Tanzanian music than I ever thought I would. He certainly never though China would be a priority for him.”

She says Fleck has been her teacher, though not in the way you might expect. She plays clawhammer style banjo; he doesn’t. “I really like things simple and soulful,” she explains. “Bela is driven by virtuosity and new patterns and new ideas. So we come from really different places. Yet he is a major mentor in my life about how to get things done, how to think musically outside the box, and how to just make it your life. How to live a passionate life. ”
“He also says I inspire him to think about beauty and to think about what needs to be said in a song…It’s something I value in my life, beauty.”

They are touring with Juno and her mother. She feeds him before shows and during the set break. “It’s wonderful. We are so fortunate to be able to tour in a bus with my mom. He gets to have consistent bed times, a controlled environment. It’s really fun.”

     So what took them so long to collaborate?bela1
Washburn says only after having Juno last year did the timing seem right. Fleck has had a long, established and remarkably diverse career. Now, she’s established as well. Recording the new album between sessions nursing Juno has taken some time. They’re not finished, but she’s excited. “The music we’re creating together feels really awesome,” she says. “With a clawhammer and a three-finger banjo roll you can create the most beautiful water-flowing pocket. Bela and I are striving for that and feel like we’re accomplishing that on this record. On other occasions, you can be funky and groovy, too. We feel like we’ve got a wide-ranging, beautiful record to offer.”

    They wrote a few originals, dipped into traditional songs including murder ballads and, of course, songs inspired by Africa and China.
Its’ been eight years since they first played together as a duo, a benefit for her grandmother’s church, another one of those magic moments on her path.

      “When we sat down to play the first time, it was really great,” she adds. “We didn’t have to rehearse for hours. We didn’t have to figure out our arrangements. We just intuitively moved freely and easily together. We really enjoyed being on stage together. We said this is something we should do again someday. When Juno was born, we said we don’t want to be apart. It inspired us to revisit the duo.”

For ticket information, go to http://www.vafest.org/2014/2014-performances/folk-2014/bela-fleck-and-abigail-washburn-2014


Bela Fleck’s Restless Explorations

 bela1            The list of Bela Fleck’s collaborators is a head-spinning kaleidoscope through modern music.

Sam Bush and John Cowan in New Grass Revival, a group that redefined acoustic music. The out-there rhythm section of Roy and Victor Wooten and the polymath harp player Howard Levy in the Flecktones. Double bassist Edgar Meyer. Tabla player Zakir Hassain. An assortment of African players and singers. Jazz stars Chick Corea and Marcus Roberts. And, most recently, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the innovative string quartet, Brooklyn Rider.

            “It keeps me excited about music,” he says. “It keeps my job from turning into a job. I want to play music I’m passionate about rather than learning it so well I just do it. I want to actually love it. And I love it more when I keep learning new things.”

            That means moving in what is a dramatically new direction for Fleck, who for years has been one of music’s great improvisers on the banjo. Rather than getting together with a group of guys like the Flecktones or an artist like Corea, he’s composed a concerto for symphony orchestra and a quintet for a string quartet, painstakingly writing down every note.

            The quintet is a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider, the string players known for their contemporary compositions and their work with Yo-Yo Ma and others, including Suzanne Vega.

They come to the Ferguson Center for the Arts on Nov. 22, where Fleck, who has won 16 Grammy Awards and been nominated in more different categories than any artist, says to expect to hear not only the quintet, but also their versions of Flecktones tunes, bluegrass tunes, and Brooklyn Rider compositions.

            “What I’m after from a string quartet is not to turn it into a meter machine like a bluegrass band or the Flecktones, but to pull the banjo into their world and figure out how to play flexibly,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of exciting, intense stuff, but there’s also going to be a lot of beauty that you can’t get in a bluegrass band or a jazz band, long notes that hang in the air and evoke a lot of different feelings.”

            Fleck’s latest sharp turn is another in a career filled with them. “It’s a period in mybela2 life where I’m trying to write things down and I’m trying to compose,” he adds. “It’s something I haven’t done before: write with an overview as opposed to interacting with great musicians who bring a lot of compositional skills.”

            “In classical music, the composer writes every single note everybody plays so it’s a whole different challenge,” Fleck says. “I’d like to be good at both.”

            Fleck’s challenge began after being commissioned by the Nashville Symphony to create a banjo concerto. Fleck told the symphony’s chief executive officer that he thought a major banjo concerto had not been written and that he would love to write it. To his surprise, the symphony leader thought it was a great idea.

Fleck had collaborated in recent years on concertos with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hassain so it was not foreign soil for him. “The banjo is an instrument that has not gotten its due,” he says. “One idea of creating a classical repertoire is that it will be around a long time.”

            Fleck reads banjo tablature, but he does not read traditional musical notation. He turned to technology, using a work-around, a software program called Sibelius that translates banjo tablature into other instruments. It also allows him to explore ideas on his computer, starting with one note and building from there. He wrote for six months, often while on tour, coming off stage and working in the tour bus or hotel rooms or coffee shops, wearing headphones. He spent six months on the concerto, the benefits of being in a band that doesn’t have to practice so he could come off stage and have extra energy to work on the project, giving him something fresh to bounce off of that’s not the music he’s performing.

            “There’s a lot of slow work I do to create these pieces,” he says. “In the end, I get them the way I want them.”

            He took two retreats, one to the Oregon coast, and one to New Mexico, and he says he hears Oregon particularly in the music. “It was on the beach where there was a lot of interesting water action going on, a lot of diverse waves,” he adds. “I think there’s a lot of water, especially in the concerto.”

             The concerto addresses everyone from Stravinsky and Bartók to Copland, Gershwin, and Earl Scruggs and plays off the idea the banjo picker sneaks in with a disguise, becomes convinced he belongs there, but eventually is discovered.

            After he’d finished the three movements of the concerto, which appears on his latest, “The Imposter,” he needed more music to flesh out the album. So he began writing sketches for the quintet and then asked around about players. His new classical agent suggested Brooklyn Rider. Fleck did his homework, listening to their records and asking friends about them. They got together for a day, playing the sketches. “They knocked me out,” Fleck says. Then they work shopped the pieces for a few days, making more adjustments.


        Don’t think that Fleck is abandoning the other genres he’s explored. He’s playing shows with his wife, claw hammer banjo virtuoso, Abigail Washburn, digging into rootsy music.

            “It’s not that I’m going to stop doing the other,” he says. “But there are things that are possible when you write music down like this that are not possible in an in improvisational situation. I’ve always improvised. For this to be different, for me to learn something, I had to see what I could come up with. What if I sat and worked on it for months? What kind of new techniques and sounds could I get by thinking about for an hour what those four bars should sound like?

 bela3           Fleck grew up in New York, attending Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, the setting for the movie and television series, “Fame.” He studied the French horn, which he hated, then began taking banjo lessons with Tony Trischka, a banjo pioneer, learning the three-fingered technique of Earl Scruggs. It was listening to Scruggs play the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies that turned him on to the instrument.

            “Growing up in the Sixties what was happening to music at the time made a little guy pretty excited about possibilities,” he says. “It seemed like every time the Beatles put out a new record it was a brand new world. Then Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix and what was happening in jazz music. I just thought that was what you were supposed to do — open up the doors and keep expanding. I took that to heart as a musician and that’s what I keep trying to do.”


Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider, Friday, November 22, 2013 at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News. Ticket Prices:

$57. www.fergusoncenter.org