Opposites attract. When it comes to Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the old adage is mostly true. They are both professional banjo players; but there the similarities end, and the opposites and differences begin. As another old saw says, vive la difference.
Fleck, fifty-six, is arguably the best banjo player on the planet. He’s been nominated for Grammys in more categories than anyone else in the history of the awards, and has won fifteen. There are few genres he’s not played, composed in, or recorded, and his list of collaborators reads like a Who’s Who in music. Washburn, thirty-seven, has musical and other accomplishments equally diverse and extraordinary. She’s been a force in traditional bluegrass and old-timey music with groups like Uncle Earl and with newgrass ensembles like the Sparrow Quartet. She’s fluent in Mandarin, has written songs in Chinese and sung them in her U.S. concerts, and has collaborated and toured with Chinese musicians throughout China, actively trying to build bridges between our two cultures.
While Fleck, with his Earl Scruggs-style picking, has long been charting the future of the banjo, Washburn has been navigating its honored past with her clawhammer banjo style. They meet and create in the present. Washburn establishes what she calls the “rippling groove,” while Fleck weaves his chromatic, scalar wizardry around it. They combine the hypnotic qualities of old-time mountain music with the cerebral sophistication of modern jazz. Their live shows feature all their strengths: Fleck’s finger-defying solos; his alchemical ability to transform what seems a musical dead end into a logical, inevitable phrase; and Washburn’s agile Everywoman voice, sometimes smoky sometimes bell-like, always an ideal complement to the ringing tones of their banjos.
They married in 2009 and their son, Juno, is now almost two years old. On stage they exchange musical as well as marital dialogues. Fleck plucks a small banjo ukulele, supposedly borrowed from Juno, and asks, “Do you think this banjo makes me look fat?” Washburn laughs, “There’s no right answer to that.” Or they recount how Fleck suggested that “it would be nice if we did one of my tunes,” suggesting one of the string-shredding instrumentals for which he’s justifiably famous. Washburn’s reply, “It would have been nice if you’d pushed the baby out your hoo-hoo.”
A friend told us about a backstage conversation he had with Fleck some years ago. He asked Fleck what advice he had for his teenage son, an aspiring musician. Fleck replied, “Tell him to plan on not getting married or having a family,” referring to the strains of the non-stop touring that seems to be necessary for a musician at his level. Since Juno’s birth, Fleck and Washburn have been touring as a duo so they can be together as a family. It’s an admirable solution for all three of them and a treat for all of us.