(This Folk Alley Session was originally published in November, 2014)
What happens when two greats join forces? Well, in the case of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, a whole lot of banjo playing. For their 2014 eponymous duo album, Fleck says the main conceit was that “it would just be the two of us all the way,” and not just in the studio. They also wanted to be able to tour the project properly, honorably, as a duo. But, as musicians are wont to do, Fleck explains, “As we got into it, we realized we really wanted to have different colors. So, we started pulling out all the banjos we had and looking at them and thinking about what went together in different ways.” The resulting soundscape is painted with cello banjos, ukulele banjos, and even a bass banjo borrowed from Victor Wooten. Both pickers make the instruments earn their keep with Fleck, in particular, churning our superlative runs and riffs all the way through. But they also use the banjos in more measured ways to fold percussive rhythms into the mix and flesh out the sound because, as Washburn points out, “The truth is, a banjo head is a drum head.”
For the rest, Fleck notes, “The songs we chose to do were all over the place, really.” But, he adds, “We ended up with a lot of songs about doom and death.” That penchant for gloom was driven largely by Washburn. As a reaction to feeling a lack of control as a new mom, she began considering what she calls “the bigger picture of life and death, and the big cycles.” “Little Birdie” was born from just such an inspiration when Washburn spotted some baby birds in a Chinese lantern hanging on their porch. Although Washburn hatched the tune before she was pregnant, it wasn’t completed until after baby Juno was born, tying the two cycles of life together.
Taking a different turn, “Shotgun Blues” is a vengeful guilt trip of a tune written by Washburn in response to all the old-time murder ballads that, mostly, end with a dead woman ” rarely a dead man. Washburn, who explored the genre in-depth during her Uncle Earl days, observes, “I’ve noticed that, when I’m in a bad mood, I actually find murder ballads quite uplifting. Because at least I’m not the one hanging from a tree or drowning in a river.” Fleck and Washburn also offer up “New South Africa,” a reworking of an old Flecktones song that was written as the band was preparing to travel to that country. “It was right around the time that Nelson Mandela had become the first elected president of South Africa,” Fleck continues. “So everybody was talking about the new South Africa and we were excited to be a part of that.”