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A Bluegrass Happening: The Jewish News Sits Down with Banjo Player Béla Fleck
In anticipation of his upcoming appearance in Detroit, Béla Fleck answered questions about music and family for The Detroit Jewish News.
Béla Fleck received a garage-sale banjo from his Jewish grandfather more than four decades ago, took a liking to the instrument and developed a long career filled with 16 Grammy Awards.
Although he has infused his bluegrass basics with other musical styles, from jazz to classics, Fleck returns to his roots with a live performance of numbers from his newest album — My Bluegrass Heart — during a “Bluegrass Happening” Thursday, June 23, at the Detroit Opera House.
Among the tracks is “Psalm 136,” which he said derives from a Jewish tribe in Uganda.
In anticipation of his upcoming appearance in Detroit, Fleck, often joining with the Flecktones, answered questions about music and family for The Detroit Jewish News:
JN: What do you have planned for your upcoming show in Detroit?
BF: I’m performing with incredible bluegrass players. My own group includes some of the greatest younger players. My own pals and peers, Sam Bush (mandolin) and Jerry Douglas (guitar), will also perform with their bands, and there will be some jamming between groups so the audience will get a lot of great music. My group will play mostly from my latest release, My Bluegrass Heart, which won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album a few months back.
JN: What does this show represent about your latest recordings, especially providing the meaning of your “bluegrass heart” and how you’ve translated that into music?
BF: I started out loving bluegrass banjo and then branched out into other kinds of music on the banjo. This project is a return to what I love about the banjo. Sometimes it’s fun to go in that direction after so many years of looking for new musical forms to explore and dig my way into.
JN: What songs have you worked on recently and what do they represent about your evolution as an entertainer and a person?
BF: I’m always writing new tunes. My music is instrumental, which is challenging to build an audience for. It’s easier when you sing because folks can always relate to the human voice. I suppose I have chosen a much harder road, but it is natural for me, and it has worked out way better than I ever expected it to. When I write new music, I get to include my current thinking about what makes music special to me, and I always try to stretch the forms when possible.
JN: During an earlier interview, you said that you wrote songs by calling them into your answering machine as soon as you had an idea and then following through when you got home. How do you work now?
BF: I still make a lot of voice memos. A lot of the best ideas start very spontaneously, and you have to catch them before they evaporate. The problem is I still have to develop these ideas into complete musical thoughts and songs. So it’s not like I have 500 something songs on my VM. I have 500 starts. Some are better than others.
JN: If you had not received that first garage-sale banjo from your grandfather, would the banjo still be your instrument of choice? Why or why not?
BF: It’s hard to say. The banjo fell into my lap, and even though I was very excited about banjo music, I can’t say that I would have searched it out if it hadn’t just turned up in my life. I’m very happy that my grandfather is the one who gave it to me because it makes it even more special.
JN: What do you think that mixing so many types of musical styles — and being awarded for it — expresses about you in terms of your style of music and your appreciation of music?
BF: I think you are supposed to be creative if you are musical, and I do try hard to be a complete one. Being awarded does give you some confidence that what you think is good is in sync with what other people think is good.
JN: Does your wife (banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn) still join you onstage, and if so, what does that bring to your working world?
BF: Yes, we love performing together and will be touring again in October. We are hoping to have both of our kids onstage with us next tour. Juno sings and plays mandolin while Theo is learning the drums.
JN: What were your work experiences during the pandemic and how does it feel to be back on tour?
BF: It’s so lovely to be out playing again, but I do miss Abby and the boys. Playing with this band is an unadulterated joy. During the pandemic, I finished up several major projects. One was a quartet album with Edgar Mayer (bassist and composer), Zakir Hussain (tabla player, percussionist, composer) and Rakesh Chaurasia (flautist). Another is a duo album with my hero, Chick Corea (pianist, composer), who passed away last year. And another is a duo album with my wife, Abigail. And, of course, My Bluegrass Heart, which was recorded before the pandemic, but I did all the post-production at home.
Béla Fleck will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 23, at the Detroit Opera House. Tickets start at $49.50. (313) 872-1000.