The centerpiece of the programming at Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival this spring is almost certainly banjoist Béla Fleck and singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn, two career collaborators who wed last year after playing together in the Sparrow Quartet for years. They'll both bring separate projects to the stage this weekend in Silk Hope. We spoke to Washburn and Fleck about the challenges and benefits of seemingly always working on something new.
Béla Fleck has been nominated for and won Grammys in more categories than any other musician, in large part because he recognizes the versatility of his instrument—among the names with which he's slung his banjo are Doc Watson, Sam Bush, Chick Corea, Edgar Meyer, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Nelly Furtado and, of course, his innovative jazz-bluegrass fusion quartet the Flecktones.
Fleck's latest project, Throw Down Your Heart, finds the virtuoso traversing Africa, digging into the roots of the banjo while collaborating with folk musicians in Mali, Uganda, Tanzania and Gambia. One of those musicians, Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, will join him this weekend at Shakori Hills, where Fleck also sits in with festivals hosts Donna the Buffalo and former Sparrow Quartet collaborator Abigail Washburn, while performing his own set with a brand new backing trio.
The Indy caught up with Fleck between a full slate of rehearsals and gigs to get his thoughts on the evolution of the banjo and the inside scoop on the collaborations we can expect this weekend and later this year.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What events specifically motivated you to explore the African origins of the banjo to the extent of traveling the continent for a significant amount of time a couple years ago as opposed to 10 or 20 years earlier?
BLA FLECK: This was when the Flecktones took a year off, after 15 years of extreme traveling and building. Finally I had time for some other projects, and I was trying to figure out what to do with an open year. I really wanted to do something I couldn't do in a normal Flecktone year, and going to Africa was at the top of my list. I had been in love with African music for some time, and the fact of the banjo's African origins really interested me as well.
Also, I had the resources, because of all the hard work I'd been doing. I ended up having to fund this myself. My brother, Sascha Paladino, was the director of the film, and we basically partnered on the whole project. He did a great job.
What has the reception been like for the African musicians performing with you on the Africa Project when touring the United States?
These tours have been highlights of my life. They have been so much fun. The audiences have totally fallen in love with the musicians and their music. The musicians really appreciated having a chance to spread their music around and see the U.S. Playing with these guys on tour actually allowed a deeper connection than going to Africa did.
This is because when I was there, I would have only a few days with each of these people. On the tours we were together for weeks. Playing the music every night also allowed us to get deeper into it.
With the banjo becoming increasingly fashionable with artists who don't play using the traditional approach (Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers) or that remove the instrument from its traditional context (Sufjan Stevens), how do you feel the role of the banjo is changing in both the pop and folk spheres of today's music culture? What do you expect, hope or fear it might become?
I am happy that the banjo is turning up in cool modern music. It used to be that the banjo carried such a strong image, that it would only fit into music that wanted that connotation added to it. Now more often it is seen as a cool part of America's heritage, and hearing it on a track can actually make that track special. For a long time it wasn't even welcome in country music, as they were trying to get away from a rural sound. Now it's even turning up there on occasion. [I have] no fears. I just like to hear it played well.
When you played with non-English speaking musicians in Africa, how were you able to communicate? Are there any ways in which you feel that inability to verbally communicate ideas actually improves collaborations?
We did have interpreters but tried not to use them too much. I think that not speaking the same language made the parameters of the collaboration simpler, and that was kind of cool. We couldn't talk about details much, so there was a purity to it. I couldn't change what the other person was doing, so I didn't try.
Besides the sets we know about—with Bassekou Kouyate, Abigail Washburn and Donna the Buffalo—who else do you hope to collaborate with at the Shakori Hills festival next weekend? What can we expect from those performances?
I am bringing a new band to the festival for my set. Originally I had planned on doing a solo set, but I am very excited about this new group and I decided to invite them.
The musicians are Jeff Sipe on drums, Casey Driessen on fiddle and Roy Agee on trombone. We got together to do Earth Day here in Nashville last weekend, and it really was fun. I will also play a banjo workshop, so there'll still be a chance to play solo.
As to what to expect, I try to come in with as few expectations as possible, but I am confident that it will be really good, because everyone I am playing with can be counted on to commit to the music in a deep way. I think my card is pretty full, so I am not looking for more folks to play with. I think I'll be involved with at least six sets over the two days I'll be there.
You always seem to be working on a variety of different projects at once. What's next?
I am starting up with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain in late May, and that will go thru the summer. We did a project called The Melody of Rhythm, which came out last year.
Half of it is with orchestra and half is trio. So we'll be doing dates with orchestras and as a trio. In the fall, the Flecktones will be doing some recording for a new project [and] there will be touring in December. Next year, the Flecktones will tour, and I'll be writing a banjo concerto. [That's it] so far... —Spencer Griffith
They played together for the first time in 2009—a measly hour-and-a-half session in some hipster jean shop on what some call the wrong side of Nashville. They'd met earlier that day, worked up a few tunes and hoped for the best. People stumbled in looking for skinnies and milled about listening, most unaware that this was the debut of a new collaboration between Kai Welch, a young indie rocker type, and Abigail Washburn, the revered darling of the old-time/ Americana world.
"It was surprisingly easy and positive and fun, and there was something that just felt a little bit magical about it," Washburn says. Magic or no, that humble introduction was definitely the beginning of an unpredictable new adventure for a musician whose career—and life, really—has been full of them.
Washburn is a career collaborator, having paid her dues in the all-girl string band Uncle Earl and made the rounds as one-fourth of the impressive Sparrow Quartet. Before that, she traversed China, immersing herself in that culture's music. But after years of experimenting with the boundaries of traditional music, Washburn is making the curious, very deliberate step toward indie folk.
"I've been so involved in the folk and string-band world that I really haven't had the chance much to collaborate with people outside of it," Washburn reasons. "I was intentionally keeping my eyes and ears open to find people that I might be able to jam with and play with and try new things with."
Welch, whom Washburn discovered madly switching instruments during a concert with his sometime band, Tommy and the Whale, was a lucky find. However, producer Tucker Martine, with whom she's been working to record this new material, was a calculated one. "He seemed like the perfect person to help me sort of create the bridge into a new musical place," Washburn says.
The Portland, Ore.-based Martine, who has worked with bands like The Decemberists, Laura Veirs, Bill Frisell and Sufjan Stevens as a producer and arranger, didn't know much about Washburn when she reached out with the new project. He soon understood.
"I thought her default mode of unique song ideas informed by an old-timeaesthetic would be a good foil for my sensibilities and fondness for using the studio as an instrument," he explains. Washburn describes the result as a batch of songs with "simple arrangements and lots of thoughtful layers"—intended as a break from the down-home stomp of Uncle Earl or the intricate compositions of the Sparrow Quartet.
"I never expected myself to make music like [this]," she admits.
Rewind about eight years, though, and Washburn didn't really expect to be making music at all. She had traveled to China to learn the language. She expected to go to Chinese law school and mused that she'd live there forever. But her yearning for home and her desire to be a cultural communicator quickly spun her life into a new direction, and "all of a sudden [she became] a professional musician who played the banjo and loved old-time music. That was a really shocking big switch for me," she concedes.
Released in 2005, her first solo record, Song of the Traveling Daughter, is a powerful and complex rendering of that revolutionary time in her life—"just a pure expression of who I was in that moment." The traditional "Who''s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet" shines alongside originals like the a cappella "Single Drop of Honey" and the bluesy "Coffee's Cold." But the most telling number, "Backstep Cindy/Purple Bamboo," folds a favorite Washburn picked up from mentor Riley Baugus into a Chinese traditional.
"[That record] for me was very much an expression of that moment when my identity was shifting so strongly in this direction of music," Washburn explains. "But still the inertia of China in my life was huge."
Her time since that momentous shift has been, in a word, busy. In the last five years, she's put out three records with Uncle Earl and released an EP and a full-length with the Sparrow Quartet, her collaboration with banjoist (and husband) Béla Fleck, violinist Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee. Where the Uncle Earl "g'Earls" thrive on antique imprecision, the Sparrow Quartet depends on what Washburn calls "might and ability of individual players." Their music plays at the edges of jazz, bluegrass and classical, calling on Washburn's knack for interlocking American and Chinese compositions, Fleck's insurmountable banjo ability, Sollee's percussive cello skill and Driessen's five-string fiddle dexterity.
Washburn extols "working in a place where virtuosity and soloing and improvisation were such an important element." But it triggered a musical impulse: "I also wanted to go in a direction of discovering what music could be like without that element to it." The new songs strip away the irregular counting, the push for improvisation, the familiar collaborators and, remarkably, the Chinese, which has been a mainstay in her music from the very first.
"I feel like I've covered where I've been coming from and now I'm trying to create a really new space for where I'm going," explains Washburn. "It's really a collaboration with people who make somewhat more accessible music. In a way this is an effort to reach more ears and more people."
This new project may be a radical reimagining of her sound, but the hope to reach further with music is hardly a new ambition. "I just want to be a part of people figuring out how to love each other, and I think music does a lot for people to help them through times of pain," Washburn says. "I think we all just are here to help each other open up to love and understanding. I'm an optimist, total idealist, but that's how I live." —Ashley Melzer