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Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn meld marriage with musical collaboration

Despite playing a common instrument, celebrated banjo players Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck have kept their musical careers separate. But after performing together as a favor to a relative, the two realized their different styles could be complementary, leading to a new collaboration and a family tour complete with their 21-month-old son. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight, on a lighter note, we end with Jeffrey Brown's story of bluegrass players wedded to making music together and to each other.

    (MUSIC)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's not exactly dueling banjos when these two get together. They are husband and wife, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who've long enjoyed completely separate musical careers, but are now recording and touring together.

    Their recently released debut album has already topped Billboard's bluegrass charts.

    We talked to them earlier this year at the RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado.

  • BELA FLECK, Musician:

    I think we knew it was going to work up front.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN, Musician:

    We did.

  • BELA FLECK:

    Because Abby's grandmother had invited us to play at her church, and that was the first time we ever played, did a concert together. And it fell together so easily, and people liked it as much as anything we had ever done separately.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The 56-year-old Fleck, a 15-times Grammy winner, is recognized as one of the virtuoso banjo players of the era.

    He's led the genre-bending ensemble Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. But is also known for his experiments with jazz, rock 'n' roll and classical music. Three years ago, he wrote his first stand-alone concerto for banjo.

    Thirty-seven year old Abigail Washburn, is known for more traditional old-time banjo music, playing solo, and also a part of the all-female bluegrass band called Uncle Earl. As a couple, they finish each other's sentences, but their different styles of playing, well, that can bring problems.

  • BELA FLECK:

    We have different limitations and different challenges in playing together.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    Yes.

  • BELA FLECK:

    And I think Abby has technical challenges that get posed because I ask her to do things she hasn't done before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Like what?

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    Oh, all kinds of things.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    Just to play a chromatic scale is, like, hard for me. The world I come from is these tunes that are just trance-like and they repeat over and over again, almost like Irish or Scottish traditional music, Appalachian American music.

  • BELA FLECK:

    We play very different styles. Abby is going to play for you a little bit of what's called the clawhammer style. Notice that she's not wearing any picks on her right hand. Our right hands are a really big difference.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    Really different.

  • BELA FLECK:

    I have got three finger picks. Abby has got some fingers and stuff.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    And I strike down, and he pulls up.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, Bela, you do something different, three fingers.

  • BELA FLECK:

    So by rotating these three fingers, all the sound comes out with very little effort. So even if I'm just doing the right hand, no finger has to go finger much faster than that, but it sounds like this. Start to add the other hand. We're playing it almost like a guitar with a flat pick, but by going up and down with the forefinger.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So that turns the banjo into more of a solo instrument or…

  • BELA FLECK:

    It turns it more into an actual musical instrument.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    What?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Uh-oh.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BELA FLECK:

    I try to play the banjo as if it were not a musical instrument.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What is she playing?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BELA FLECK:

    I'm just joking because people always act like the banjo isn't a real instrument.

    When I started playing, people weren't really playing the scales on the banjo in a way that understood the whole neck, like a good jazz guitar player would, basically, or a good violinist would. So that was a great opportunity for me. I could figure out a little Bach or some Charlie Parker stuff.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You like those.

  • BELA FLECK:

    I'm curious, and I love all these different kinds of music. And the more I play different kinds of music, the more I see the connection between them all.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The two of them, in fact, have explored connections with banjo music all around the globe. Washburn, who studied Chinese in college and is fluent in Mandarin, has toured China and adapted its folk music into banjo tunes.

  • BELA FLECK:

    We can only communicate with music.

  • MAN:

    Yes, music.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Fleck, meanwhile, has explored the roots of banjo music, which can be traced back to the slave trade in Africa.

  • BELA FLECK:

    There's an instrument here that may be the original banjo.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Wherever they go, they say, there's enthusiasm for their instrument.

    What do you think accounts for the enduring love of this music?

  • BELA FLECK:

    It feels like something — like something true and honest to people. You know, it's not smoothed-over, overproduced kind of a situation, like most of the music we hear on the radio in almost every idiom.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    There's a sense of connection to our country and who we are as a nation when you hear this music and a sense of connection to history and what came before. It's called roots music because I think it makes us feel rooted like a tree. If we're the leaves, music is the roots, and it makes us feel satisfied and nourished and strong.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The two plan to continue touring together for the foreseeable future, partly because they now are a trio. Their 21-month-old, Juno, accompanies them on the road.

  • BELA FLECK:

    I have a lot of friends who had kids and traveled as musicians and were gone for their whole childhood. And, often — sometimes, the marriage didn't work out too. And I don't want to make that mistake with this opportunity.

  • ABIGAIL WASHBURN:

    It's just an obvious fit. And to be able to sit up there on stage in front of an incredible audience and look over to the side and see our little boy sitting there playing, it feels like a dream come true that I never even imagined.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    No sign yet if Juno will take up the family banjo business.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "NewsHour" from Lyons, Colorado.

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