He is a 16-time Grammy winning banjo player named after three classical musicians. She plays the claw hammer banjo and almost became a lawyer in China. They met at a square dance where he was playing and she was dancing. They’re husband and wife and the parents of two young sons. They’re Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn and a visit from them is a visit from musical royalty.
New Yorker Béla Fleck was named after Béla Bartok, Anton Webern and Leos Janacek, but he took up the banjo after hearing Earl Scruggs and the theme from Deliverance. His grandfather gave him his first banjo when he was 15 and he taught himself to play, using an instructional book by Pete Seeger. He attended the prestigious High School of Music & Arts in New York City. After high school, he went to Boston and became a street performer. He was asked to join New Grass Revival, where he played for nine years and recorded a solo album, Drive, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
In 1988, Fleck and Victor Wooten formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Fleck, who has been nominated for Grammy awards in more categories than any other musician, continued to collaborate with a wide array of artists from many genres. He worked with Edgar Meyer on Perpetual Motion, an album of classical music played on the banjo, which also featured Lyric favorite Joshua Bell as well as Evelyn Glennie and Gary Hoffman. It won Grammy Awards for Best Arrangement and Best Classical Crossover Album. He and Meyer composed a double concert for banjo and bass, which they debuted with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Fleck has also recorded with traditional African musicians, co-written a documentary, Bring it Home, about the Flecktones, co-produced Song of the Traveling Daughter, his wife’s debut album, and recorded as member of the Sparrow Quartet, featuring Washburn, Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen.
Abigail Washburn is a singing, songwriting Illinois-bred, Nashville-based claw hammer banjo player. When she was offered a recording contract at a bluegrass convention, she decided to become a traveling folk musician instead of the lawyer she had planned to be. Washburn, who speaks Chinese, has traveled widely in Asia and tours and performs their regularly. She was named a TED fellow and gave a talk in 2012 about building US-China relations through music. Two songs on her album with the Sparrow Quartet were recorded in Mandarin. The New York Times praised her 2011 release, City of Refuge, written with collaborator Kai Welch, saying the songs “mingle Appalachia and folk pop with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” Her most recent release, in 2017, Echo in the Valley, was recorded with Béla Fleck and is a follow-up to their self-titled album that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album.
For Fleck, Echo in the Valley is reflective of where the two are right now. “Some of the most interesting things in the world come together in strange and unique ways and show our diversity,” he said. “The banjo is just one of those things. It’s a great example of how the world can combine things and create surprising hybrids. We’re expressing different emotions through past techniques and going to deeper places.”
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