"I loved MIM in general. It's a stunning achievement and I look forward to showing it off to Abby and Juno."
Bela Fleck

An Interview with Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck Returns to MIM with Abigail Washburn May 6th

By Mariah Fleming

Bela & Abby in Glasgow

In May 2013 Bela Fleck chose the MIM in which to perform the first stand alone solo shows he'd ever done. His two sold out concerts were remarkable. At the same time, he and his wife, the highly regarded clawhammer banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, were anxiously awaiting the birth of their first baby. Now Fleck is returning to MIM with Washburn on May 6th for two shows at 7 and 9 PM. Tickets are $47.50 to $62.50. Fleck and Washburn's masterful musical collaboration has earned them the unofficial title "First Family of the Banjo." And it's definitely a family affair all the way. Fleck, Washburn and baby son Juno will arrive in their new tour bus, specially equipped to provide a comfy home on the road for Juno.

Fleck first performed with Washburn in her Sparrow Quartet and performed with her when she was the first musician sponsored by the US government to perform in China. In the interview below he talks about his deep regard for her musicianship and the way she relates to audiences, the musical surprises in store for us at this show, as well as many other topics. Fleck is regarded as the world's preeminent banjoist. His work in Bela Fleck and the Flecktones set him on a course of groundbreaking musical projects for over thirty years and each one has been a spectacular achievement. He was kind enough to take time to answer fifteen questions. And what follows is a fascinating look inside Bela Fleck's wonderful new world.

Q.You first collaborated with your wife Abigail Washburn as part of the Sparrow Quartet with cellist Ben Sollee and violinist Casey Dreissen. As one of the first American groups to perform in Tibet (sponsored by the American and Chinese governments) what was that experience like?
A. It was an awesome and strange experience. We had Chinese minders who were actually there to protect Tibetans from trying to defect to the US through us. It was strange to have that feeling of being controlled by the government. For instance we were not allowed to talk to the audience after the show. At one show they made us stay on the stage after the performance - until the whole audience had been escorted front the building. But we still had the opportunity to present our music and our perspective as Americans through our art.

Q.Abigail speaks fluent Chinese. What inspired her to learn Chinese?
A. She learned in college on a semester abroad program. She was intrigued enough to go back a second time, and fell in love with China at that point. I've joined her there 3 times so far, and it has certainly broadened my horizons to spend time in China.

Q.What can we look forward to hearing at the MIM show, and will any of it be Chinese inspired music?
Abigail WashburnA. We'll be playing a wide variety of songs and tunes. Some are very traditional American tunes, and there are some traditional Chinese tunes in there, just a couple or three. Then we have originals by Abby and myself. She has an incredible voice. Full disclosure - it's an only banjos and vocals at this concert. But we do have a lot of variety, with several different types of banjos on stage. We have cello, baritone, conventional 3 finger and claw hammer banjos, and sometimes bass and piccolo banjos too.

Q.Is Abigail planning to teach your son Chinese and do you have any plans to play China and take him with you?
A.She does speak Chinese around him and encourages her Chinese friends to be around the house speaking it. So he'll pick up some of it by osmosis. It won't be an alien sound to him. As far as going to China with Juno, the main issue for us is the pollution and air quality. It doesn't seem very fair to subject him to that anytime soon.

Q. Have you and Abigail done much collaborative songwriting?
A. We have always offered each other suggestions on each other's tunes. We've written several things together too. Right now we are completing a new duo album, on which there will be some new co-writes, for sure.

Q.What about Abigail and her music impresses/touches you the most?
A. I love the importance she places on connecting with the listener. Communication is a big part of her vision, and she's amazing at it. Everyone feels like best friends with her by the time the show is over.

Q.At your MIM shows last May, you were awaiting a June birth of your first baby. When he came early, you got the news during a concert. Were you told in mid concert, and if so, was it a challenge to concentrate on the rest of your performance?
A. It was just a few days after I played MIM that Juno was born, the following Sunday, actually. By the time we knew Abby was in labor, there was no way for me to get home from California in time for the birth. I took the red eye after the show, and was there by 9 the next morning. So Abby listened to the concert while in labor, and the audience cheered her on. After the first set, I was told we had time for me to go back on and play a last song for the crowd before the baby would come. While I was on for 10 minutes the banjo popped out. So I missed it. In fact - Zakir Hussain and I were playing happy birthday for him while he was being born!

Q.You did the first of your stand-alone solo shows at MIM last May, which were utterly remarkable. What was most memorable for you about that show, and what did you think of the MIM concert theatre?
A.I loved MIM in general. It's a stunning achievement and I look forward to showing it off to Abby and Juno. As far as the concerts, I felt surprisingly comfortable starting my first real solo concert tour there. The last year I had done a couple of little house concerts solo to prepare for a one hour solo set at Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival, but I had never committed to solo like this. Now I feel much more confident about doing solo shows as part of my future.

Q.In what ways, if any, has the experience of songwriting changed since the birth of your baby and have either of you written a song for Juno?
A.I've had a few tunes pop up that I never would have written before. One is a tune I wrote on the way home from California that night on a layover in Dallas. I didn't want to come home empty handed, so I wrote the tune at 5 AM while waiting for the first flight to Nashville. It's called Juno.

Bela at work

Q.Being surrounded with music all his life, has Juno shown an inclination towards the banjo or any other instrument, and are you teaching him to play any instruments yet?
A.He's easily calmed when upset - by banjo music. He's seen a lot of shows, and he always listens intently. He plucks the strings gently when we put a banjo in his hands. If we sit him at a piano, he likes to bang on it like Ben Folds used to. He's 11 months old and he claps along too.

Q.In the weeks before your MIM show, you're doing six shows with Chick Corea, one with the South Carolina Philharmonic, and thirteen dates with Abigail through June 1st, many back to back. How do you two manage all that and the baby? Does he travel with you?
A. This show will be the beginning of a nice month of duet concerts for us. We've found that it's very special to be on tour with Juno as long as we spend what it takes to make travel pleasant. So we're spending our profits on a big tour bus. Juno gets his bath backstage in a big yellow plastic ducky, then he goes to sleep before the show on the bus, and we very quietly get on after the show.

Q.If so, how does Juno take to being on the road?
A.He seems very happy to us. He watches all the sound checks, and if we have an early show, he comes to it.

Q.Will we get to see Juno at the MIM?
A.I think the show is too late.

Q. At your shows you're known for inviting people to talk to you after the show. Is that more difficult when you have Juno with you, and can we look forward to talking to you and Abigail after your MIM show?
A.Abby has cut back on her audience hangs after the show since Juno came along. She has to save her voice on a tour like this with so many consecutive shows. Talking for 45 minutes to people after a show in a crowded lobby is harder on her voice than singing. I usually still come out, though. She does it only if the next day she's not singing. It's too bad, because she loves talking to people.

Q.On June 22 comes the renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival where you've performed with your long time peers/friends for many years. Will Abigail and your son joining you at the festival?
A.This year I'll be playing with the Colorado Symphony playing my banjo concerto. I'll also be playing with the wonderful string quartet Brooklyn Rider, and I'll be doing a set with the all star 'House Band'. Abby and I won't be playing together there this time, but hopefully next year we will, when we have our new album out. I believe this will be my 32nd consecutive year playing there. See you soon!

April, 22, 2014

Contact the author of this article at Editor@MusicAndMoreAZ.com.