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Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn On How To Make 'Something Unique And Meaningful'

2 February 2023 | 10:00 am | Mary Varvaris

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn discuss collaborating with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, family, hair metal and more upon their return to Australia next month.

(Pic by Jim McGuire)

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Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn are fondly known as the "king and queen of the banjo" by Paste Magazine. If you watch the 16-time Grammy award-winning American husband and wife perform in the Paste Studio in New York, it's immediately apparent why the publication gifted them that label. Fleck, a renowned virtuoso on the banjo whose style spans conventional bluegrass, jazz, classical and rock music, and Washburn, a phenomenal clawhammer player (a style closely associated with her most significant influence, traditional Appalachian music), make for a brilliant musical pair.

The duo are preparing for their upcoming Australian tour, their first gigs down under since 2016. Before those shows take place, however, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn are performing with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra this Friday. The idea for the project came together through a Béla Fleck show when "Abby joined as a special guest," Fleck shares.

"It was really fun for us to be in front of an orchestra and have Abby singing; she's got the voice for it," Fleck adds. "After they heard us play two tracks, they asked if we'd like to do a song cycle and basically commissioned the same arranger [Scott O'Neill, a conductor with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra] who we really liked what he did with our stuff. And so it's been a process of trying to figure out, what is the song cycle? How do we be ourselves in front of the orchestra? And how do we find a way to do something unique and meaningful?"

Washburn continues, "It's been fun! I was talking about this today with Béla. I'm really inspired by Appalachian song traditions from the mountains - mountain singing and gospel music - so to bring that old aesthetic into an orchestral environment and have support from an orchestral environment is really exciting." The kind of music Washburn is talking about, she says is "often unaccompanied, a capella music sung quite intensely."

What Fleck notices about their upcoming collaboration is just how good the orchestra sounds with Washburn's very authentic style of singing that stems from the mountains.  

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"[The orchestra] have to be them, and you have to be you. If you try to make the orchestra sound like a bluegrass band or do certain things that aren't genuine, that can be a disaster," he says. 

Fleck and Washburn are also looking forward to playing as a duo again - something they've been doing since their nine-year-old Juno was born. In the beginning, they barely had enough material for the whole show. Now that the couple has made a few albums - their 2014 self-titled, Grammy-award winning debut, their 2015 Banjo Banjo EP and 2017's Echo In The Valley, they have a comfortable repertoire. 

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple wrote new music as well as hosted Banjo House Lockdown and Alone Together videos on YouTube. Better still was their performance on the AV Club's Undercover series, where participating artists usually cover songs out of their comfort zones. Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn's episode saw one of the most unlikely song choices you could imagine for the banjo legends: The Final Countdown by Europe.

Fleck is the first to admit that he was initially unfamiliar with the song. "I was like, 'I don't know this song. Why are we doing this song?' but it turned out to be really fun, and people loved it." Washburn adds, "I don't mean that I'm not a fan of it - I like anything that pulls on my sentimental heartstrings from high school, like The Final Countdown, YEAH!"

The couple enjoy playing Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor, though, and their kids love it, too. "But you know, I always hated all that kind of stuff. I was like, 'this is just crap.' But now, as I get older, I enjoy it. I can see the fun in it. Back then, it was just so clearly not music I wanted to be a part of," Fleck admits. 

"I didn't want to be involved in synthesisers and drums and all that stuff at that point in my life. That's how I looked at it. But now I think it's all good." Washburn, however, is a karaoke queen. "I was raised on the radio and pop culture, so all that stuff floats my boat. I love karaoke."

Washburn and Fleck's children, Juno and Theo, also show an interest in music (and they're pretty good, too). During our interview, the boys can be heard playing the drums and the piano. "It's early days, but it's very exciting that both have a natural ability and talent, and if they decide they want to work at it, they could be as good as anybody who works at it; it's just a lot of work. That's what makes somebody a great musician is that combination of the natural raw stuff and the willingness to put in the time, and that remains to be seen." 

Washburn adds that Juno is currently at a Tennessee school where each student plays a stringed instrument in grade three. She's thrilled to share that Juno has chosen the violin and sometimes jam together. "We tried to push it on him early on when we homeschooled them through Covid, and it just didn't work," she says. "It was very upsetting for him, there was no fun, and then we were upset because he was upset. It was just terrible." Now that Juno has found his own groove, he's grown more confident and may even join his parents on stage during their forthcoming Australian tour.

BÉLA FLECK & ABIGAIL WASHBURN

Australia & New Zealand tour dates

Tuesday 7 March - City Recital Hall, Sydney (Tickets here)

Wednesday 8 March - Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane (Tickets here)

Friday 10 & Sunday 12 March - WOMADelaide, Adelaide Botanic Park (Tickets here)

Tuesday 14 March - Melbourne Recital Centre (Tickets here)

Friday 17 & Sunday 19 March - WOMAD NZ, Brooklands Park (Tickets here)