Interview: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn (2014)

From Louis and Keely to John and Yoko to Derek and Susan, married couples have worked together to give us some of the most interesting and powerful music of the past century.

Enter Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, banjo innovators both, who wed in 2009 and are the proud parents of baby boy Juno, 10 months old.

Fleck, whose musical skills and restless nature have taken him deep into the jazz, classical and blues realms, started as an fiery, innovative player in the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival in the early ‘80s.

By the end of the decade, he and bassist Victor Wooten had kickstarted Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, and the banjo would never again be seen as something barefoot hillbilly boys plucked aimlessly on Appalachian front porches.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But Fleck, in the intervening years, has almost single-handedly charted spectacular new territories for the instrument.

Washburn was relatively new to the banjo when Fleck signed on to produce an album for her in 2005; she is a stunning vocalist and an ardent student of Chinese music and culture, all of which imbue her music with an otherworldly richness. She and Fleck subsequently recorded and toured, with Casey Dreissen and Ben Solee, as the Sparrow Quartet.

Both have played the Savannah Music Festival separately (in fact, the Sparrow Quartet stopped in once), but their March 30 lunchtime concert will mark the first time Mr. and Mrs. have done the Savannah deal as a twosome.

You’re parents now. How’s that working out?

AW: It’s amazing. We get to have a beautiful little creature that we get to take care of. It’s incredible.

BF: Abby is the Mother of the Year, as far as I can tell. And we’ve been taking him on the road, on these tours, and that’s quite a challenge. But he’s been great. And if we have an early show, he’ll watch the whole show and even take part in it.

The other night, Abby brought him out and she sang the encore holding him, and he pulled the cable out of the microphone and started sucking on it! The audience went wild.

Is this the first time you’ve toured together, as just the two of you?

BF: We’ve been working into it. At first I think we did a benefit for Abby’s grandma, at her church, and it went way better than we’d expected. We just threw a few things together and ended up being really happy with it. But we knew from then on that we would play as a duo, so it would pop up here and there. It’s been on our radar as something we wanted to do some day together. We’re now actually recording a record that’ll be out in the Fall.

AW: This is the first time we’ve taken it seriously … well, we’ve loved to play music together from the beginning, so that’s an obvious connection.

Abby, the last time we spoke, you were telling me that you’d picked up banjo a lot later, and that you were a little intimidated at first playing with the old master. Have you gotten over that— ‘oh, it’s just Bela’?

AW: On one level, it’s a part of our routine. But on another level, the things that come out of him musically night after night are always astonishing. That wouldn’t happen in any other situation, and I see it and I recognize it. And it’s always inspiring.

BF: I think that everybody has different things that they bring to it. I play with a lot of different musicians, and some of them have abilities that I don’t have. And when I play with them I have to deal with that kind of a thing.

For instance, if I go out and play with Chick Corea, as a duet, he’s got abilities that I don’t have. But we meet in the areas where we can meet. And he does his thing, and I do my thing, and we have a great time.

And I think it’s that way with Abby. She has abilities that I don’t have. Even playing abilities—I’ve never been much of a clawhammer player, and she can lay down a groove that I can do almost anything over. And also, her vocals are just so compelling. So I get to be part of music that reaches out to people, and connects with people in a whole different way than the instrumental music that I tend to get involved with. So for me, it’s just a wonderful experience. It’s not like we’re unequal—it’s more like we’re finding different ways to interface.

Does the other person’s creativity change you, depending on the person?

BF: Exactly. That’s the compelling thing for me about playing with a lot of people, because I get to be different. I’m not the same old me. When I play with Abby, I play different. And I play different with her than I play with, for instance, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. Or Tony Rice. There are elements to our duo that is traditional, our Abby and Bela duo, I get to play in a more traditional fashion than I do playing with Chick Corea, or the Flecktones and so forth.

But with Abby, it’s even a different subset because she has this old-time element. And also the beautiful aspects.

As an improvising artist, which is a big part of what I try to be, I’m improvising a lot with Abby but I’m responding every day to what it feels like will work well. But yeah, I definitely spark to whatever’s going on around me.

Abby, are you still bringing the Asian influences into your music?

AW: Yeah, in fact Bela and I decided to seek out a new traditional Chinese song, from southeast China, to try and go in a new direction with some of the Chinese repertoire. And it’s exciting; Bela can go anywhere, he can do anything. He’s a fearless explorer. Which is so exciting for me, because I’m game for the journey, but I might not even seek out certain directions that he sees.

BF: We were listening to a lot of difference Chinese stuff and I was like “Abby, we should do one of these even more obscure, totally Chinese things.” The two that we did with the Sparrow Quartet are almost like pop, not pop but like folk songs—they’re very, very well-known simple songs. And this shows her voice off in a completely different way that any of the Chinese-type stuff I’ve heard her sing before. I like that because it’s showing a new corner of what she’s able to do.

AW: Which is a big part of what Bela brings to me musically, new challenges, new ideas. Sometimes it’s scary and frustrating, and sometimes it’s pretty exhilarating. So I grow a lot when I play with Bela.

Tell me about the record you’re making.

BF: For one thing, the studio is in our basement. Wherever we put the mics, that’s the studio. So we have the luxury of going ahead and recording the stuff that we’ve been playing our duo that’s not already recorded. It turns out there was quite a bit there that we had been doing …

AW: Old murder ballads, old Carter Family songs and things like that.

BF: So that accounted for six or seven tunes. Once we got into old tunes of Abby’s that she’d never recorded that we had nice duet versions of. So hey, let’s put that on the table. So basically what we’re doing is recording a pile of stuff. We’ll probably record 16 or 17 songs, and then see what the record is. In there. And this week we’re going to complete three new tunes we’ve been working on. There’s an instrumental that we’ve written together, and a really cool song that Abby wrote.

Bela, is this like going back for you, to Newgrass Revival days, isn’t it? There’s a lot of Americana in this now. Is there an element of “I used to play this stuff a lot”?

BF: Yeah, it’s the stuff that made me want to play in the first place. And that I love, but I petered out of because I was so interested in moving forward I moved out of that world. Not because I didn’t love it, but just because there were new challenges. And so now, I’m coming back to it in a very earthy, natural way—playing with the two banjos.

We both love the banjo, and onstage we have seven banjos onstage that we switch around—baritone banjo, piccolo banjo, cello banjos—a lot of different tunes and a lot of different instruments that we grab and use in different combinations. So doing that, when we do a traditional song, it’s a different traditional song than you’ve heard before. There’s a lot of rippling going on

The nice thing for me is that, on top of that rippling I’m hearing some beautiful singing. And I don’t to hear that normally.

Abby can access a really old sound with her voice, and an old feeling. Ricky Skaggs calls it the Ancient Tones. And I’ve heard Abby get those sounds. And I love it when I hear it.

@2014 Connect Savannah

Art Garfunkel: The Voice (2014)

There are worse ways to spend Valentine’s Day than listening to the most romantic voice of its generation, live in a small room.

Art Garfunkel is in Savannah Feb. 14 and 15, for shows at Dollhouse Productions, which seats 300. From his classic work with Paul Simon in the 1960s, through a solo career that produced some of the most sublime pop music (“All I Know,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Crying in My Sleep,” “What a Wonderful World”), Garfunkel has never stepped outside a tiny circle of excellence.

Simon and Garfunkel had just announced a reunion tour, in early 2010, when Garfunkel inexplicably lost his voice, a gossamer instrument that bonds to Simon’s tenor like morning dew to a robust flower.

The voice just laid down like a bridge over troubled water.

Things are much, much better now, as you’re about to read.

Garfunkel, 72, began our conversation by asking if I’d seen the Grammy Awards, which had aired the previous night (he has eight of them with Simon, and another for his 1998 album Songs From a Parent to a Child).

He was surprised, he said, that the show was so entertaining (although he bailed shortly before it ended), and had high praise for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

And then we got started …


At the Grammys in 1975, John Lennon, Paul Simon and Andy Williams were bantering at the podium. Then you came out and had a really funny deadpan exchange with Simon. I never forgot it. Was it scripted?

Art Garfunkel: No. The nature of the friendship with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel is jokes, jokes, jokes. Always the inside poke in the ribs, that’s all we ever say. Our knives are sharp when it comes to looking for the inside joke in a flash. So it comes out as if we practiced, but the mind works very fast, when Paul Simon is around, to find the inside, hip joke.

That comes from knowing each other so well?

AG: Yeah, we went to junior high school together. We were always laughing. We’re Lenny Bruce fans. We love Mike Nichols. We love Mel Brooks. These three funny people, but mostly Lenny Bruce, had tuned us. When we first met our manager, Mort Lewis, he had Lenny Bruce’s album signed “From Lenny to Mort.” And that impressed us a lot. So there’s the overlap.

I have to ask you, my friend, how’s the voice?

AG: It’s good. I’m happening again. It’s a thrill to have it back. It’s taken, what, 3 ½ years? The voice is happening.

What happened, exactly?

I did a show in Nicaragua, and I remember they were burning leaves in back of the outdoor show that I was doing. And it was a funny kind of a smell. I came home in late January of 2010. I went to the Palm Restaurant, where they have great lobsters. I was with my son. I gagged on one of the strands of this giant lobster, and it was a near-panic situation. I had to kick up the lobster.

From that point on, after that night, I was experiencing a tightness of the vocal cords and my voice started getting husky. I saw the doctors, and they said “Something in the fine symmetry of your two vocal cords has gone crude.” That’s the closest I can get to an explanation. The truth is, it’s a mystery to me what happened.

The doctor said nothing except scratch your head, and that’ll be $1,200, please.

The body is a mystery. To grope and figure out things about the mystery seems to be, from a doctor’s point of view, hooking up expensive machines, taking pictures, and charging the patient a bloody fortune. That’s what doctors have meant to me.

But you did think at one point it might be gone?

AG: I did think at one point that it might be gone, yeah. I definitely did think it might not happen again. You can’t count on God’s work. Our body and how it works, you can’t count on anything. And I was really having vocal trouble—my speaking was husky. I gave it months of resting and then began to sing, and it wasn’t coming back very easily. I went through a lot of things.

I sing in a way that has to do with fine-ness. If it gets crude, then I’m not Artie Garfunkel any more. Oddly enough, I could sing in the high range. I had my upper notes, which is my stock-in-trade. I could sing in the bass, which I hardly ever use. But the whole midsection, which requires finesse, there’s where you need fine-ness. That was blunted and crude, and there was the heartbreak of it all.

I kept singing, and singing in unison to my iPad. I would sing to Chet Baker and JJ Cale. And I was starting to get there. My unison to these great masters was starting to happen. I would sing to my old albums, in my iPod. I would sing to the Everlys—first Don, the lower voice, and then dear Phil, that great angel in the sky now. And I could get it. I sounded dead-nuts on. And that was promising.

When I took to the stage … first I booked an empty house, so I could have microphone, reverb, speakers and projection, which is the real show business experience … I was quivery. And it wasn’t happening. I kept doing it, and a couple of years went by. I finally started singing to small houses. My wife is a Buddhist; I would sing to her Buddhist meetings, and it was all about facing your obstacle. And I was living example of “Man Meets His Obstacle.” You do your best.

I ended up thinking “You’ve gotta get onstage and act as if you’re ready, even though you’re not ready.” The adrenaline and the fear of doing a show, even when you’re not ready, and throwing yourself into it, helps you get ready.

I’ve never gotten over stage fright. I do a lot of theater, and play a little music, but never got over it. I look at someone like yourself and you look so friggin’ confident up there!

It’s acting. What you just said really touches me. Now you’re my pal. Now you get it, you understand. It’s very unnatural, and very exposed, to say to a house full of people “Hush up and watch what I can do.” It’s all so presumptuous! It’s what fancy people do! It’s not my nature. It’s a pretense to say “I am going to take care of your reality for the next 60 minutes.” And I was back to that early stage of presumption and fear. At my advanced age! My knees were knocking. I was 15 years old again, just a year and a half ago. But you do it anyway. And only with the repetition of dozens of doing that do you settle back into the groove.

I hear you signed a book deal?

AG: They don’t want me to talk about it. I’ve been writing for 30 years. I write these bits. I don’t know how to describe them, they’re one-page, half-page reflections. They’re memoirs of my life, my career, of my wife, my children, family, show business, Paul Simon, my history. I’m entranced by the living experience, if you must know, Bill. And so I write as a philosophically questioning guy. I’ve been doing it for about 30 years, to myself, for myself, thinking well, I like what I’m doing; I think I have my own voice. I don’t know if it translates. I would sometimes read it to people, and some of them work, some of them don’t. I finally got the courage to shop them around with a literary agent. And he came back with great responses: “You are a writer.”

So I’m in the editing phase. But if you must know, the thrill of shaping up this show that I’m bringing to Savannah has completely captured me. I love what’s going on. A new three-part concert has emerged in front of my eyes. And I’m into it.

Do tell.

AG: I read some of these things we’ve been talking about. And I reflect on the song I’m about to sing. And I weave in and out of things I wrote and this now-returned voice. I go back and forth and I go through my repertoire while I show them my prose-poem bits. It has an identity of its own. I don’t know anybody who does this, but it works. I’ll come onstage and I’ll go “Somewhere around the middle of the ’60s, I took a room at the Hampshire House. I remember the carpet, cherry vermillion. The balcony looked up the axis of Central Park, dead center. Twenty-fifth floor. I was new to fame, and to room service.”

I have just one guitar player, Bill. That’s my show. It is what I call severe less-is-more. I’m trying to make every little thing be a big thing. And grow from there. At the end, I’ll do a question-and-answer and finally, finally open up as a guy with a lot of love and a lot of experience, and a lot of accessibility. Ask me what you want to know, folks!

Why do you say finally, after all these years?

AG: Because I’ve been behind Paul Simon all through that famous Simon & Garfunkel career. And during my own solo 20 years I had my four-piece band. I only slowly began to be a talker. That’s why. I don’t know if they know how proud I am of my body of work.

OK, you brought it up, so I have to ask. You were about to tour with Paul when the voice troubles began. Are the two of you thinking about doing it again?

AG: Who knows? If the voice is working again. We’re a hot duo! The world loves us, I love us, so it begs the question why wouldn’t we do it again when the voice is back. But you gotta ask him. It takes two to make a tour.

When you get to this age, are all the old animosities gone?

AG: Animosities, Bill? Something you know?

There’s been hot and cold running water over the years.

AG: We’re different personalities. You see Paul Simon, you see Artie Garfunkel, you see two different kind of guys. My job is to keep the class of Simon & Garfunkel. I don’t want to knock us off the pedestal and bring in the earthiness of two different personalities. We mesh pretty well. I don’t think our story is animosity, I think it’s harmony. Being two different people, we managed an alchemy of fusion in a pretty exciting way, right from childhood on. I think that’s our story.


@2014 Connect Savannah