Team building

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck partners in marriage, parenthood and Grammy-winning banjo

By CHRIS BIERI
Special to the Union Leader
November 15. 2017 12:59PM
Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck share banjo duty on the road. (Jim McGuire)
If you go...
IN KEENE:

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St.

TICKETS: $35 to $49

INFO: thecolonial.org; 352-2033

IN PLYMOUTH:

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 So. Main St.

TICKETS: $55 to $65 at missiontix.com

INFO: flyingmonkeynh.com; 536-2551

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck’s musical collaboration was formed, in part, as a partnership of convenience.

The husband-and-wife duo started recording and touring together to accommodate a fledgling family; it was a way to keep everyone together while still pursuing their musical ambitions.

And while the banjo players have found an ease playing together, parenthood has not stagnated their creative force.

With the release of “Echo in the Valley,” Fleck and Washburn have produced a riveting follow-up to their Grammy-winning self-titled debut.

The duo brings its picking talents to a pair of in-state shows this weekend, Saturday in Keene and Sunday in Plymouth.

“Echo in the Valley” again combines Washburn’s clawhammer banjo style and Appalachian spirit with Fleck’s frenetic Scruggs-style picking and inventive runs. But Washburn said this time they were able to devote more time and energy to the release.

“(With) the first album we made a conscious decision,” she said. “We knew we wanted to tour together. When we were getting ready to have the baby, we said, ‘This is the time.’ We made the record after we had the baby, which really limited our time (to devote to the project).

“Trying to feel vital and awake during those times wasn’t easy,” she said. “We tried to piece it together, which is part of why we did songs we’d done before. We did the best with what we had at the time.”

The result wasn’t exactly a bust — the groundbreaking banjo duet record won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2016.

But “Echo in the Valley,” released last month, allowed Washburn and Fleck to be more deliberate and dive deeper into their wealth of knowledge in genre and technique.

“Now we had a 3-year-old and he goes to preschool,” Washburn said. “We were able to really write new original material. The focus was to push ourselves. We collaborated in an intensive way and it wasn’t easy.”

The record showcases the duo’s mandate for original, engaging material.

“Don’t Let it Bring You Down” sounds warped and primitive, but acts as an antidote for modern disputes. “Come All you Coal Miners” is written from the perspective of Sarah Ogan Gunning, a coal miner advocate from Kentucky in the mid 20th century. And Washburn’s vocals give “Hello, Friend” a modern pop feel.

“One of the great things about this duo is that it’s kept us together,” Fleck said. “It’s part of the master plan. This concept was to keep us all together. I’m not off doing whatever musical projects I’d be doing otherwise. It was really important for us to produce a record we felt invested in. It would give us the impetus to follow this family plan we’ve been pursuing.”

Fleck gained notoriety as a bluegrass prodigy in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, but quickly and comfortably transitioned into jazz and experimental music playing with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in the late ‘80s.

Named after composer Bela Bartok, he also has began writing banjo concertos in recent years, producing “The Imposter” in 2011 followed by 2016’s “Juno Concerto” named for his and Washburn’s son.

Washburn was playing with all-female string band called Uncle Earl when she took second place in a songwriting contest at MerleFest (a bluegrass festival in North Carolina), leading to an opportunity as a solo performer.

She recorded her first solo album, “Song of a Traveling Daughter,” with Fleck acting as producer, and has spent time in China, both studying and performing.

Sometimes the musical compromises they reached were more difficult to make than personal ones.

Fleck described his tendency to work through parts by trying everything until something works, while Washburn ruminates on ideas and thrives on the final minutes of deadline pressure.

“In the creative process if you don’t start speaking up you feel like you’re not represented in the art,” Fleck said. “We actually had to be much bolder than we would be in our personal life. In life stuff, you can give each other time. But in creating a record and creating art you have to finish in a time period that’s somewhat sensible. You have to move through things.”

The duo recorded the album without any overdubs or backing musicians, with the idea of being able to play all of the songs live without any assistance.

“We can go work on it ourselves,” Fleck said. “We could have layered 15 banjos on every track and brought in some other musicians but it just makes everything more like everything that is out there. The signature is that it’s two banjos.

“The more instruments you put with them, the less magic you get from the banjo,” he added. “The banjo is a very complex instrument. That’s part of our banjo cause; we’re proponents of it and believe it shows itself off well.”

The couple has been touring steadily since early September through the release of “Echo in the Valley” on Oct. 20. And according to plan, Juno has been with them every step of the way.

“He’s been climbing into my bunk every morning at 5:30,” Fleck said. “I’m pretty tired but it’s my favorite part of the day. It’s definitely worth it.”

Fleck and Washburn have also been trying to make an impact on the cities and town they visit on tour.

“We’ve been doing an initiative with our merchandise the past few years (in which) we donate the proceeds to a local nonprofit,” Fleck said. “Each of those shows (in New Hampshire) will have a local nonprofit designated to receive the profit from our merch. We’re also going to have a banjo raffle.

“The result is that we get to find out a lot of wonderful things happening in the community,” he said.


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