Bluegrass power couple Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn released their first album together in October, eponymously titled Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, and have been picking their way across the country ever since. We had a chance to catch Bela Fleck between shows, and before their Ann Arbor appearance a the Power Center, to chat about songwriting, stage banter, and plans for the future.
The Guardian describes your new album: “banjo music for people who hate the banjo.” What kind of audience did you have in mind while writing the album? Do you imagine your listener while crafting a song?
We made music that we felt had the qualities we both enjoy in music. We love groove, and acoustic instruments well recorded. We love vibe and space, ancient traditions, etc. I suppose you could say we imagined an ideal listener who was a combination of the two of us.
Also, I have met people who find the banjo irritating, and I completely understand. Some folks hate the bagpipes or the accordion, too. Unfortunately, the more stuff a person decides he doesn’t like, the less he gets to enjoy, which is something I realized at some point when my tastes were much more rigid. I was just cutting out my possibilities to really dig things. I’m doing better at it now.
Some of my favorite moments at concerts are between songs when performer(s) connect with the audience. How does your stage banter with Abigail differ from playing with The Flecktones or other performers?
The stage banter is different from any that I’ve been involved with. We talk quite a lot. And we have fun with the crowd. Abby tells stories, and she’s a real connecter with the audience. I have my fun too. It’s a very warm experience for all of us.
The album includes a variety of original songs and remakes—“New South Africa” from Live Art (1996), “And Am I Born To Die” and “Pretty Polly,” both old English tunes that have traveled around Appalachia for centuries, “Shotgun Blues,” an original non-traditional murder ballad. What was your song selection process like? Any tracks that got cut from the album that you now play live?
There were a couple of extra cuts that disappointingly were not released. One was a traditional song in Chinese, which Abigail sang. Another was a Bartok piano piece. We do them live on occasion.
We selected the songs by starting with the ones we already were playing and were fond of. Then we figured out what was missing, to make a full album presentation. At that point we wrote/found the remaining songs.
Do you have a sense of what’s next? Any plans to get the band—Uncle Earl, The Flecktones—back together?
There are open door policies with both of these groups. The Flecktones are discussing getting a tour back on the books. Uncle Earl did their first reunion last summer and had a blast. I think they’re all quite open to doing some more dates together as well. I’m on tour currently with a chamber orchestra called The Knights, performing my banjo concerto ‘The Impostor’, among other material. I have upcoming dates this fall with Chick Corea. Other than that, it’s Abby and me all the way. With our 20 month old baby on the road, touring is very sweet. We love it.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, $82. March 1, Sunday, 7:30pm, The Power Center for the Performing Arts, 121 Fletcher Street, Ann Arbor, (734) 647-3327.