They’re two of the banjo’s most intrepid explorers, taking their instruments beyond musical and geographic boundaries. Rooted in old-time music, she’s extended that sound to classical and rock settings, creating a new audience for the banjo with regular trips to China, communicating in Mandarin, the Chinese dialect she’s studied since she was a teenager. Starting in bluegrass, he expanded the banjo’s vocabulary into electric improvisation that found him sharing stadium stages with the Grateful Dead and Phish. From those musical outer limits, he brought the banjo back to its birth continent—Africa—traveling to remote villages to perform with traditional music masters. Back in the States, he embarked on a road even less traveled, composing and performing a classical concerto for five-string banjo and symphony orchestra. Now they’re collaborating on what may be their most perilous odyssey yet—marriage and parenthood. And there will be banjos. Lots and lots of banjos.
Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck have come home. Their son, Juno, turns two in July and they’re spending a lot more time in their house, set on the rolling hills of suburban Nashville. They’ve put a hold on solo careers to work together in an intimate, all-banjo duo that’s winning rave reviews at theaters and festivals. For Fleck, who spent much of the last quarter century leading his electric Flecktones to shatter expectations of what a banjo can do, the acoustic duo marks a return to the instrument’s pure sound that first drew him in.
“It’s funny,” he says, settling back in their family room while Juno takes his afternoon nap. “I had this conversation with Chris Thile not so long ago at RockyGrass. We’ll get into deep stuff sometimes, and he’ll go, ‘What am I doing wrong with my music?’ And I’ll go, ‘Well, here’s what I think you need to do.’ And so I said, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And he said, ‘Well, all I can think of is you have something to offer to the acoustic music world, but you haven’t done anything for like fifteen/twenty years. And I think there’s still a place for you.’ Read entire article »