By Blake Ells
Béla Fleck has earned 14 Grammy Awards over his career, but his 2016 GRAMMY for Best Folk Album may have been the most special as it was won in a collaborative effort with his wife, Abigail Washburn. Fleck spent years with his own band, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, after spending some time with New Grass Revival. He’s offered his banjo talents to everyone from Dave Matthews Band to Asleep at the Wheel. On Friday, March 30, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Before the tour stop in Birmingham, Fleck spoke about nurturing his collaboration with Washburn, the popularization of instrumental music and Bonnaroo’s support of bluegrass.
Birmingham Stages: I think you and Abigail were together for nearly a decade before you really collaborated, certainly in the studio. Was that deliberate? Or was it always inevitable that you would record together?
Béla Fleck: We were waiting for the right time. She wanted to get her profile up a bit before collaborating with me so she would have her own established identity, rather than being Béla’s girlfriend. I always said that as soon as they heard her play and sing, they would understand why I was playing with her. But when we had our son, Juno, it was the perfect time to join forces.
Birmingham Stages: You both have very unique styles of how your perform the same instrument. How have you blended those styles to create your sound as a duo, and how do you feel that has matured since your debut together?
BF: Part of it is very natural, in that we sounded pretty tight right away without a lot of thought. But the other part is that we work hard to find combinations of “Us” that are unusual, and we don’t shy away from something that is hard at first.
Birmingham Stages: In recent years, you’ve combined your work with some symphonies, notably you performed a concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Is blending those two very different sounds as challenging as it sounds?
BF: It is a ton of work, but very rewarding work. The challenge and the unusual setting for the banjo make it worth the effort.
Birmingham Stages: You had a heavy hand in popularizing instrumental music with a younger audience. Do you know why or how you were able to make that connection in the ’90s?
BF: My group, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, were so darn unusual that we were able to attract a lot of attention. Even mainstream places like Johnny Carson or Arsenio Hall gave us spots. And then we hooked into the early ‘jam band’ phenomenon, and that got us to a lot of new young folk.
Birmingham Stages: How much did festivals like Bonnaroo play a hand in introducing bluegrass music to that younger audience?
BF: I like that Bonnaroo has always made an effort to respect bluegrass. Part of it is that the audience is intrigued by it, so they are very responsive. A lot of folks that never would hear bluegrass check it out at Bonnaroo and become serious grass fans.
Birmingham Stages: Has raising a child slowed you down a bit? Do you find yourself committing to fewer projects nowadays?
BF: I am cautious, because I don’t want to be gone much. So I don’t encourage projects that require a serious touring commitment. But I pick things that I can do at home, like writing orchestra music, which I don’t have to leave my family to write. Things will become more involved when we have two children, as we are expecting number two in a couple of months. I will have to be away a bit more, because Abby shouldn’t have to be out touring with two kids, she will need a break. So I’m finding a few more things to do that take me our for short runs.
Birmingham Stages: Will we ever see any form of a New Grass Revival reunion again?
BF: I wish! It’s not looking good currently, but maybe someday!
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Friday, March 30. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $29.50 – $49.50 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.