Is destiny preordained? Is fate inevitable? Some might say that Béla Anton Leoš Fleck was tattooed with talent long before he even picked up the banjo. At birth Fleck was named after three brilliant and secular composers: Béla Bartók (Hungary), Anton Webern (Austria), and Leoš Janácek (Czechoslovakia). It was only a matter of time until he became acknowledged as one of the most prestigious and widespread banjo players in the world. Fleck has been a part of a multitude of groups and collaborations, seen many cities, and shared the stage with legends far and wide. And to Fleck, playing banjo prolifically doesn’t just come naturally; it’s a result of years of work.
Born and raised in NYC, where the streets flow constant like lifeblood, Fleck absorbed this philosophy into his own veins; like “the city that never sleeps,” Fleck is a battery with unlimited charge, exceeding unthinkable dreams and goals in his perpetual career. He hasn’t stopped since his grandfather gave him his first banjo at 15. He was drawn to it immediately.
“I just loved the sound,” he tells encore. “I never thought I’d ever actually be able to play the banjo well. I followed my passion and kept playing, and gradually got it together.”
Fleck wasn’t glued to one instrument, though; he enrolled in NYC’s High School of Music and Art where he studied the French horn. The virtuoso has since mastered the guitar, dobro, mandolin, theremin, and piano. However, during childhood his interest in banjo grew after he heard Earl Scruggs play the theme from the famed TV show, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Ambitious since the start, Fleck joined Tasty Licks at the end of the psychedelic movement in the ‘70s. Tasty Licks provided a transition and inspiration for Fleck’s first foray into progressive bluegrass composition. This led to the first solo release of many, “Crossing the Tracks” (1979). Through these different trials and run-throughs with bands—even performing on the streets—Fleck found himself being asked by Sam Bush, the father of newgrass, to become a part of the refurbished lineup of New Grass Revival (NGR) in 1981. Jamming with NGR for just under a decade, Fleck released five more solo CDs. 1988’s “Drive” led to Fleck’s first of many individual Grammy nominations for Best Bluegrass Album. Following NGR’s third major-label project, the band called it quits.
But Fleck had already made a name for himself and played musical-chairs with various groups. “I choose artists to work with who I can learn from, and who I have a deep respect for,” Fleck says. “Music can make one quite humble because it’s hard to always play as well as you’d hope to. Mutual respect helps us get along with each other!”
It was inevitable for another opportunity to come knocking at destiny’s door. After joining multi-talented bass player Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones began and consisted of Howard Levy (keyboard/harmonica) and Wooten’s brother, Roy “Future Man” Wooten (synthesized-based percussion). Though currently on an indefinite hiatus, during their tenure, the Flecktones released 14 albums and won a multitude of Grammys. It was also during this time that Fleck met Abigail Washburn, after she was spotted dancing at one of his shows. In 2009 the two married and now share a son, Juno Fleck, born last year.
Fleck is currently on tour with his lovely and tremendously gifted wife. Washburn, who also jams on the banjo, dares Fleck to look to the history of the instrument and simplify his style.
A native of Illinois, Washburn currently resides in Nashville. Her fate fell into place with the help of a tiny five-stringed instrument. After the great Doc Watson spotted her during a jam session at the International Bluegrass Music Association festival, Washburn delayed her trip to Beijing for law school on the eve of the voyage. She became an acquaintance with Watson and, through him, learned the Clawhammer style. The traditional way of playing the five-string banjo uses a downward strum as opposed to an upward motion, striking the strings with a fingernail.
Washburn eventually became a piece of the all-female string band, Uncle Earl. She spent five years on the road with the self-proclaimed “g’Earls” and later went on to record her first solo album, produced by Fleck.
Washburn’s style is a pure fusion from the winds of the Appalachia and earthly culture of the east. An influence of her second homeland, China—where she has spent some time living—emerges in her sound. “City of Refuge,” her sophomore record, brings to light her electric moods with an acoustic instrument and her cavernous voice.
Washburn’s vocals add something new to Fleck’s routine, her own folk style of singing and songwriting is strongly influenced by the past but it fits perfectly with her partner’s state-of-the-art performance.
“Abby is a deep well of beautiful intention,” Fleck says. “She has an amazing voice and plays the banjo in a personal and groovy way.”
Their collaboration is special because of how contrasting they are as players. Together, they do the near impossible—a duet featuring the clawhammer and three-finger banjos. This creates an established sound and a foreign pace to Fleck’s playing. It’s fresh female vocals and old-fashioned chic, challenge him even further to take a breath, slow down his stride, and regress to the roots of the traditional banjo.
“She allows me to perhaps be more poetic,” Fleck says. “And also to re-access the traditional music that I have missed over the years of playing banjo in different contexts.”
After being nominated for over two dozen Grammys, more than any other artist in Grammy history, and winning 15, Fleck still soars. “The great thing about music is you never run out of areas to explore,” he says. “In fact, I have to limit the areas I delve into, because my life span is too short to fully realize all of them.”
Fleck’s latest release, “The Impostor,” may be his greatest achievement yet. “It’s the only album I’ve made where every single note was written by me,” Fleck confirms. It features an orchestra and a string quartet from the Nashville Symphony.
“There is challenge in doing complex music, but also in doing simple music,” Fleck says. “Doing anything well takes focus and time.”
A tour for the masses waits in the wings of the near future, as Fleck will play several shows with Chick Corea, featuring various orchestras. However, currently, he’s touring with his wife, and they’ll make a stop at UNCW on March 27th, at Kenan Auditorium. Only fate will determine where the road of success ends.
“I couldn’t have imagined getting to where I have, honestly,” Fleck admits.
The prodigy has to remake his goals every decade because he’s continually exceeding previous ones. “Nowadays I take it one project at a time, and concentrate on really getting each one right,” he notes.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
March 27th, 8 p.m.
UNCW Kenan Auditorium