(for Sing Out!)
When I first heard that Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married I thought it was a joke, though that was in part because of the source of the news. The “Bluegrass Intelligencer,” a satire web magazine, ran the story under the headline “Strategic marriage will consolidate power within single banjo sovereignty: Fleck, Washburn promise male heir, Holy Banjo Emperor.” A faux anonymous source close to the couple is quoted as saying that the future bride and groom “barely detest each other at all.”
Of course, the article was meant in fun even if there was a bit of truth behind it. Which, as it turns out, there was. Yet, when Fleck and Washburn did in fact marry (they’ve also since had a male child, Juno, born last year) it still felt like someone was pulling our legs. As musicians, they have often seemed to be singing from different hymnals, so to speak.
Fleck is known, rightly, for a very complex, heady approach to the banjo, one based in the kind of precision that we associate more with classical musicians than, well, anyone else. Sometimes it works, as in an early recording that is now a classic, Fiddle Tunes for the Banjo, with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith. Fleck’s timing and precision, as well as his musical intuitions, really burnish the work to a sparkling sheen.
In other instances, that academic kind of approach doesn’t work as well. Fleck’s symphonic piece “The Imposter,” one reviewer noted “feels as if Fleck worried the piece into existence. It’s too fastidious, and it never really soars.” If there is anything to fault in Fleck’s playing, it’s that inability to really loosen up, to relinquish a bit of precision in the service of feel, especially in settings such as jazz and swing that simply require it. In Ray Charles famous formula, “genius + soul = jazz,” though having soul, despite the apparent genius, is not something it’s easy to accuse Fleck of. In his work with the Marcus Roberts Trio, his accompaniment and solos float like oil in a vinaigrette dressing—they’re there, but they never really combine or take the flavor of the rest of the mix.
Washburn, while not as technically robust, brings a rich, immersive emotion to everything she does. She crept into the Americana mainstream through old-time music, rising to attention as a member of Uncle Earl, a group in which she demonstrated her ability as a singer and banjo player as well as her willingness to take risks in the service of reaching an audience. During sets with Uncle Earl she’d include a song in Mandarin, sometimes accompanying herself on banjo, and others, as in a translation of Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone,” with an old-time accompaniment. Because many in the audiences in those days didn’t know that she had lived in China and speaks Mandarin fluently, the idea, when first presented, felt put on, or showy, or just ill advised. Then she showed us why it wasn’t. She regularly brought audiences to their feet, perhaps none of whom had any idea what she had sung, let alone why. The emotion, and the power in her voice, was captivating and moving. Where Fleck wants us to listen to him, Washburn wants to speak to us.
That contrast animates their first album of duets, titled simply Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. The first track is an example of Washburn’s fearlessness: she opens with a reworking of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It’s hard to conceive of such a thing not seeming trite, and placing it as the first track has a whiff of bravado about it. She gives it her best, but it can’t avoid feeling self-conscious. The arrangement is set in a minor key, which feels like a feint toward adding depth. Fleck only adds to the tension, most noticeably when he inserts a few bars of the melody of “Oh Suzanna.” It’s campy and hard to bear. The political flourish at the end—“one day I’ll own this railroad, and everyone will ride for free”—comes out of left field and feels like another feint at adding thematic depth.
There as elsewhere the presentation is overly muscular and the album doesn’t find its emotional core until the fifth track, “New South Africa,” which is, frankly, breathtaking. It’s an instrumental piece pitting Washburn on one side, Fleck on the other, as they work through a composition that Fleck first recorded with the Flecktones in 1995. Here, it’s the musical equivalent of a mid-afternoon discussion over coffee—playful, light, comfortable, a moment away from the rush of the day. It works because it allows both players to express their own character and to retain their own voices—Fleck with his runs and complex chords; Washburn bringing in a lovely old-time claw hammer banjo—as they circle effortlessly, joyfully, and at times impishly around a number of musical ideas. There are other highlights too, including another instrumental, “Banjo, Banjo,” and a reworking of “And Am I Born to Die” which pays tribute to Doc Watson and his approach to that song.
But, in all, there is more here that doesn’t work than does, in part because they are trying to do too much. Instead of settling into a room and exploring it, they want to tour the whole building. In an earlier time, say even just twenty years ago, this album would have been the first of two or even three, or at least have been pared and edited in order to describe a clearer narrative arc across the album. An instrumental album would be nice, and “Railroad,” “Bye, Bye Baby” and “For the Children” suggest how nice a children’s album could be especially when framed as such. In choosing a smaller frame, they’d allow themselves the time to really settle into and explore specific musical areas, and to unpack them, to turn them over, and to work through them at a more leisurely pace.
These days, however, there isn’t the industry to support such a long view. Nor are there producers in the studio anymore giving suggestions as to what to try and what to tweek, what to include and what to leave off. We tend to sneer at that idea, believing that the musicians are the best judges of what to do. But, had it not been for Norman Granz in the studio, Oscar Peterson wouldn’t have written “Hymn to Freedom.” Likewise, there are reasons that people hire T Bone Burnett. Sometimes there is a benefit to having someone with an objective perspective weighing in and providing direction.
Given the approach, as well as the admission that the album was made in order to allow the two to spend more time with their infant child,  –it was literally recorded around feedings and rest—there is a risk of the fiction upstaging the reality. They’ve been marketed, including in the radio spots for their one Canadian tour stop in support of this album, as “the unofficial first family of the banjo.” We need a first family of the banjo, official or otherwise, as much as we need a holy banjo emperor, though it seems we now have both: those are Juno’s giggles at the end of the album, styling the final punctuation in the form of a birth announcement. Hakuna matata y’all!