By Selena Puente
Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck are more than just a typical duo of banjo players. They draw from typical folk influences like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, but their new album, simply titled “Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn,” combines both of their unique influences.
Washburn and Fleck, stars of the banjo world, married a few years ago, and this is their first album as a married couple. As comically put by the Bluegrass Intelligencer, “After lengthy negotiations between their two camps, banjoists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn have agreed to marry one another, advancing their long campaign to unify the progressive and old-time banjo empires under a single sovereign ruler.” “Sovereign ruler” is a reference to their baby boy Juno. As Washburn said, “He’s learning how to eat and walk, and next, he will be the banjo king.” The new album is the first recording the pair has released together, and although the songs are tamer than the music typically made by these musicians individually, it is best understood once someone knows a little bit more about Fleck’s and Washburn’s backgrounds.
For anyone familiar with banjo music, or perhaps even blues, Fleck’s name probably carries prominence. He picked up the banjo as a teenager, and ever since he recorded his first album in 1979, he has become an icon of progressive bluegrass composition. His repertoire contains albums that combine blues, jazz, Americana, funk and classical.
A personal favorite of this reviewer’s is “Throw Down Your Heart,” the album that came out of the artist’s journey to Africa, motivated by a determination to go visit the home of the banjo. The opening track, the standout “Tulinesengala,” involves only Fleck picking banjo in the background behind the sounds of Nakisenyi Women’s Group, but the song is charged with a bright, vibrant spirit of clapping that ends in pure laughter. In addition to exceling at rustic works such as this, Fleck is just as impressive playing classical pieces on banjo, making Chopin mazurkas and Bach Inventions sound effortless and beautiful. These can be heard on the album “Perpetual Motion.”
Washburn has been a recognizable name in the same musical circles. She only picked up the banjo after returning from a year abroad to China when she felt inspired to pursue anything but the lawyer track she had previously thought was paved for her.
Her largest contributions to the banjo world have been her reinvention of the clawhammer style of play and the mixing of Eastern culture into her music. On her first album, “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” released in 2005, the song “Backstep Cindy/Purple Bamboo” evolves into a bluesy-Oriental fusion of bluegrass, percussion and erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument known to Americans as the Chinese violin. The next song on the album, “The Lost Lamb,” is completely sung in Chinese over the buzzing drone of cellos and basses.
Washburn has also displayed a classical side, recording with The Sparrow Quartet, a group featuring the newly famous songwriter and cellist Ben Sollee. Playing in this quartet was also what brought Fleck and Washburn together, and the new album definitely reflects the classical work they did together in this musical ensemble.
The new album also has a unity to it that probably could have only come from a married couple. Its songs range from instrumentals to murder ballads. Both banjoists take turns as the lead instrumental voice, but Washburn’s ethereal voice washes over the entire album, giving it an additional vocal cohesion. There is heart and soul in the new Fleck and Washburn album, and they did the whole thing while taking care of a newborn.
Maybe the motivation was not the album, but rather the family, and maybe even the brightness that a banjo can bring to one’s day.
As Mark Twain said, “When you want genuine music – music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution…when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”