By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 22nd annual Four Corners Folk Festival is on the horizon, taking place right here in Pagosa Springs on Reservoir Hill Park Sept. 1-3.
The event draws thousands of people from the Four Corners region and beyond (some all the way from the East Coast) to enjoy three days of live musical performances from internationally touring musicians.
This year’s lineup includes Los Lobos, The Wood Brothers, Sarah Jarosz, John Fullbright, The East Pointers, We Banjo 3, The Lil’ Smokies, Quiles and Cloud, Session Americana, The Accidentals, Freddy and Francine, Ghost of Paul Revere, The Drunken Hearts, FY5, and this week’s featured artists, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn.
Sure, in the abstract, a banjo duo might seem like a musical concept beset by limitations. But when the banjo players cast in those roles are Washburn and Fleck — she with the earthy sophistication of a postmodern, old-time singer-songwriter, he with the virtuosic, jazz-to-classical ingenuity of an iconic instrumentalist and composer with bluegrass roots — it’s a different matter entirely.
There’s no denying that theirs is a one-of-a-kind pairing, with one-of-a-kind possibilities. Fleck and Washburn have collaborated in the past, most visibly in their Sparrow Quartet with Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee. Until recently, though, any performances they gave as a two-piece were decidedly informal, a pickin’ party here, a benefit show at Washburn’s grandmother’s Unitarian church there. It was inevitable and eagerly anticipated by fans of tradition-tweaking acoustic fare that these partners in music and life (who married in 2009) would eventually do a full-fledged project together.
Now that Fleck, a 15-time Grammy winner, has devoted time away from his standard-setting ensemble Béla Fleck and the Flecktones to a staggeringly broad array of musical experiments — from writing a concerto for the Nashville Symphony to exploring the banjo’s African roots to jazz duos with Chick Corea — while Washburn has drawn critical acclaim for her solo albums, done fascinating work in folk musical diplomacy in China, presented an original theatrical production, contributed to singular side groups Uncle Earl and The Wu-Force and become quite a live draw in her own right, the two of them decided they were ready to craft their debut album as a duo. There was one other small, yet not at all insignificant factor in the timing: the birth of their son Juno.
Said Fleck, “I come from a broken home and I have a lot of musician friends who missed their kids’ childhoods because they were touring. The combination of those two things really made me not want to be one of those parents. I don’t want to be somebody that Juno sees only once in a while. We need to be together and this is a way we can be together a whole lot more.”
That goes for touring and album-making both. Thanks to the fact that they have a first-rate studio on the premises, Fleck and Washburn could record at home — but that didn’t mean it was an easy process. Consumed with caring for their new baby and perpetually sleep-deprived, they had to get resourceful in order to carve out time to cut tracks.
“Béla is really the reason that it’s finished,” Washburn emphasized. “There were a few months when Juno was a newborn that I just really had to have somebody say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re gonna do today.’ As long as I could spend a few hours a day between nursings, we could make some good progress on the record.”
The aim wasn’t simply to get the album done, but to make it feel satisfying and complete using only the sounds they could coax out of their bodies and their banjos.
Said Fleck, “We didn’t want any other instruments on there, because we’re into this idea that we’re banjo players, and that should be enough. Why do you always have to have a rhythm section, a guitar player, a bass player or something? Sometimes when you add other instruments, you take away from the ability of the banjo to show all its colors, which are actually quite beautiful.”
Washburn and Fleck didn’t confine themselves to playing their usual workhorses, her Ome Jubilee and his pre-war Gibson Mastertone Style 75. Between them, they used seven different banjos in all, including a cello banjo, a ukulele banjo that technically belongs to Juno and a baritone banjo that Fleck commissioned specifically for this album.
“We had this vision of playing different banjos in different registers,” he said, “finding a way to make every song have its own unique stamp, yet the whole project having a big, cohesive sound — with only two people.” (A giggling Juno is the only other person who appears anywhere on the album.)
From track to track, Washburn and Fleck are a nimble band unto themselves. Fleck sings harmony on a couple of tracks, too — something he hasn’t had the chance to do since his New Grass Revival days. You’d expect Fleck to take the lead during intricate instrumentals, but that’s not always the case here. In “New South Africa,” which came from his Flecktones repertoire, he and Washburn each take a turn out front. And if you listen to “Banjo Banjo” in stereo, it’s easy to make out the subtle rippling effect of the two players seamlessly trading notes during ascending and descending runs.
That kind of stuff was way out of Washburn’s comfort zone.
“I come from the old-time world,” she said, “which is more about communally trancing out on old fiddle and banjo tunes. It has very little to do with soloing or anything technical or virtuosic. So for me to try to learn Béla’s music has been a big challenge, but a wonderful one. Although I’m a very different type of player, I feel very lucky that he’s a musical mentor to me. It’s a beautiful part of our connection.”
Fleck chimed in, “I’m a big fan of Abby’s playing. I know it so well that I could imagine the two of us playing these tunes together. I love looking at her playing and going, ‘What can I throw into your kettle of soup that would make it bubble up just a little bit?’”
The directness of her musical sensibilities had a profound effect on him, too.
“I do a lot of heady music,” he explained, “and I’m always trying hard to keep soul and melodicism as important elements, but there’s also a lot of complexity going on. When I play with Abby, there’s an opportunity for me to make music that hits you in a different place emotionally. That’s one of her gifts, is a pure connection to the listener, taking simpler ideas and imbuing them with a lot of personality and a point of view. I wanted to make sure that while I was respecting my own ability to play complex ideas, I was also part of making that feeling happen.”
A surprising number of the songs on the album address matters of life and death, a coincidence that Fleck and Washburn came to embrace. There are multiple meditations on the afterlife, one example being the Appalachian-accented “And Am I Born To Die,” which Washburn learned from a recording of one of her heroes, Doc Watson. And if they were going to record the Victorian murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” Washburn wanted to make sure that it was a version where Polly had a speaking part, and that it was immediately followed in the song sequence by her original “Shotgun Blues,” a song whose gist she summarized as, “I’m gonna come after that nasty, old man that keeps killing all those ladies in all those murder ballads.”
Of course, Fleck and Washburn also had a new life entrusted into their care, and were overwhelmed at times by how strong the protective parental instincts hit them. So, after recording one version of “Little Birdie,” they ultimately went with an alternate version where the mama bird saves the baby bird from a crocodile in the final verse. That one felt right.
Juno gets to hear rehearsals and sound checks a plenty, since he accompanies his parents to folk festivals, arts centers and theaters all across the country. But he’s typically already asleep in his very own bunk on the bus before the shows start. Washburn and Fleck playfully embrace the notion that they’ve become a family band. And at home, on stage or on record, it’s their deep bond, on top of the way their distinct musical personalities and banjo styles interact, that makes theirs a picking partnership unlike any other on the planet.
Festival-goers will have a chance to experience the music of Fleck and Washburn on Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. when they take the festival stage to close down this year’s festival.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is produced by FolkWest, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is funded in part with a grant from Colorado Creative Industries.
Information on schedules, artists and tickets can be found online at www.folkwest.com or by calling 731-5582.
(Artist bios and interviews courtesy of Fleck and Washburn.)