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Kindred Strings: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Over the past two months, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn have been criss-crossing the country, their banjos reverberating with the sounds of their new record Echo in the Valley. After their self-titled debut was awarded the Grammy for Best Folk Album, the pair doubled down for their sophomore LP. Echo in the Valley is poignant and purposeful; it informs the present with songs from the past, and simultaneously considers how our actions echo into the future. “That’s a lot of what Echo In The Valley means for me,” Abigail says. “Returning to these things have been a part of our human history forever and ever—of struggle, trials and hope. I think in our new, contemporary lives, we sometimes forget that people have lived these trials over and over again.”

Considered by many as pioneers of their instrument, Béla and Abigail are a family band in the truest sense, playing together, writing together, enacting political change together and even enlisting their young son, Juno, to toddle along for the ride. During a brief respite from the road, the duo chatted from their comfort of their living room in Nashville, Tenn.

You’re in the middle of your tour to support the new record, Echo in the Valley. How has this series of dates treated you far?

Abigail: Great! We’ve been having a blast. We’ve been a lot of places—all over Colorado, parts of California, Florida, North Carolina, and a lot more to come.

Béla: And Nashville—we did three shows here. They were in small clubs as part of a special series called Circle Round Home, where we play places that would seem to be small for us, but we do several of them. So that’s been fun but, really, just playing the new music has been a lot of fun; our set is sort of reinvigorated.

I’m going to ask about Circle Round Home in a minute, but as you said, you’re playing a lot of the new record on this tour. Have you found that any songs in particular are really resonating with audiences?

Béla: Yeah, I thinker “Younger Me” really hits them hard.

Abigail: I do too.

Béla: It’s one of those that’s jumping out, of the ones we have onstage. I think we have maybe six of them onstage, and another six to get onstage. And we’re curious what will happen with those—the ones we haven’t gotten out there yet. “Take Me To Harlan” is so strong that we have to end the show with it, because—if people are listening to the record they might think there’s some kind of percussion, but it’s all live dancing and singing—it’s pretty much an impossible feat that Abby does very, very well.

Yeah, I was going to ask about “Take Me To Harlan,” that kind of soft shoe work—that’s you, Abigail, on the record?

Abigail: It is!

Is that something you learned as a child? Or something you picked up more recently?

Abigail: It was part of being in the band that I was in, Uncle Earl. We all would clog, because it’s a part of Appalachian banjo and fiddle music—having a clogger or a flat-footer doing percussive dance to go along with the music. So, the other girls in the band knew how to do it, and they started teaching me. And I just loved it. Then we actually did a video of us clogging, along with a bunch of other amazing cloggers from North Carolina called “Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat.” But it’s actually a kung fu clogging video. You’ve gotta see it.

That’s awesome. I’m definitely going to link that in the article.

Béla: When you see it, you’re going to die. It’s so stupid and so great. She’d had that song in her head for a while—she just had a few lines of it, and this idea of dancing and singing, and so together we completed her idea.

So going back to the Circle Round residency, you guys did those shows to benefit a bunch of local nonprofits in your home of Nashville. How important is it for you guys to touch base with your community in that way?

Abigail: It’s very grounding. And eye-opening too, because you get to see all of the hard work that people are doing day in and day out around here, trying to make a difference.

Béla: Yeah, I think the thing that really cemented us more to Nashville than ever was having a child, and having him go to school. We take him to school everyday; the school he goes to is a Waldorf school, which is very special. It’s pretty easy to get behind that, so that was one of the benefits we did—fundraising for them. And then the Tennessee Environmental Council—the environment is hugely important and hugely worrying to us. So we try to support those kinds of organizations. And then the TIRRC, which is a refugee organization.

Abigail: Yes, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

Béla: And so all three of the subjects represented by those nonprofits are in our record—they’re sort of embedded in the songs, and are things that we care about. Songs like “Over the Divide,” which is really about Syrian refugees. Abby heard about an Austrian shepherd who ferried Syrians over the border during the night, while yodeling. That became sort of the basis for the song. A lot of times we feel powerless to help; the problems can seem so insurmountable and so big. Sometimes it’s important to just do something—just find something to do, even if you’re afraid to. And that song is kind of about that, too. It’s easy to say, “Oh, we should do something.” Part of it is to just do something… Even if it’s small, it makes a difference.

So one of the things we like to do when we’re on tour is to find a nonprofit in every town, and give them our merch money—give all the income to that nonprofit. And usually we do a raffle, where we’ll raffle off a banjo uke that I’ll play in the show. Everybody that buys merchandise gets a ticket, and then we raffle it off at the end of the night, so somebody walks home with an instrument. That also connects us to the country more as a whole than just to Nashville, because it’s always a local nonprofit that we partner with.

Another song on the record that kind of ties into your activism is “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” which kind of has this defiant, resilient tone. Could you talk a little about writing that song?

Abigail: Béla came up with the idea for that one. It just came to him one day. He said, “Let’s just try this.” So we sat down and I started singing, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” over and over again. And that’s pretty much how the song ended up.

Béla: Yeah, we had that one line and I said, “Well, just sing that while you learn the melody. Just sing that one line over and over again.” And Abby did and it sounded great. We were like, “Hey, maybe this is one of those simple songs where you repeat something.”

Abigail: Lyrically simple, but when you try to count what we’re doing, it wouldn’t be so clear.

Béla: It’s actually a compound time signature, which gives it a different feeling. When things are complicated, it’s kind of nice to repeat lyrics in music so that the ear can get used to the rhythm—and feel the rhythm—instead of being confused by lots of new information. So in that way, having the same lyric in the whole chorus actually makes sense. It sort of makes something that could be dismissed—because it’s a little complicated—into something that’s almost mantra-like.

Abigail: I think Béla and I are both glad to have a mantra that says, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” because it feels like there are so many things in the media right now that if you pay attention to it, it can really bring you down.

Béla: Yes.

Abigail: So that’s a lot of what this is about too—to not let the divisiveness bring us down, and to keep searching for where we connect and where we overlap.

Béla: In the aftermath of the election, for those of us who were unhappy about the result—it was devastating. People were just—as you know—knocked over in shock and dismay, and then became addicted to the news cycle. It was just an emotional tailspin. To get out of it, I think you have to make a decision to step away from it. And then you have to look for things you can do that you can feel good about, and when you look around you see that there’s a lot of great stuff happening everywhere. So we’re trying to be part of that.

You guys have definitely been out there, releasing this record, out on tour, doing all of this activist work. You also recently hosted the International Bluegrass Music Awards, and I wondering what that was like. Do you see yourselves working on the award show circuit anytime again soon—maybe the Grammys or the VMAs?

Abigail: [Laughs.] We really enjoyed it. We took our time, and over a few months wrote jokes for it, and practiced them in our shows, and really built up to that night. So we gave it a lot of our attention together, as a couple. We felt really honored to have that opportunity, because sometimes—I myself being an old-time musician and more based in old-time music—it can feel like I’m on the margins of the bluegrass world.

Béla: I also feel that way. Because I’ve done so much that’s outside of bluegrass, I’m always a little insecure that they’re actually not that thrilled over there in that part of the world. But when I do spend time there, it turns out that they’re not that way at all. It’s just something you can get in your head. You know, some people are going to like what you’re doing, and some won’t, but there’s a lot of family feeling in that world to me. I really came into my own, I guess you could say, as a bluegrass musician. I knew when I first came in that if they’re still alive, they’re still part of it—it’s like the mob. Bluegrass musicians always come home to roost.

And Abigail—I want to pick up on something you said, that you’re kind of an old-time musician. You guys included some Appalachian classics with deep histories on Echo in the Valley, like “Sally in the Garden / Molly Put the Kettle On.” I was curious how you chose those songs from such a vast American songbook?

Abigail: Well, I think that just like anything, you find yourself kind of drawn to this or that. It’s something I learned. I really love the “Sally in the Garden” one it because—I’m going to nerd out a little bit—it’s in an Open C tuning, but played in a minor key. So it just resonates on the banjo in a different way than if I was in mountain modal trying to play that tune. So I really get excited about that tune, because it’s an open tuning in the minor key, and I just think it’s a beautiful and graceful melody on the clawhammer banjo. “Molly Put the Kettle On” I learned while I was in Uncle Earl, at jams. We never played it as a band, but at jams we would. It’s just such a fun, uplifting tune. I learned it from the fiddling of Rayna Gellert. I don’t know if she would claim me, because I don’t play it at all like she actually does, but I learned it from her playing at jams. She was the fiddler in Uncle Earl. So yeah, those are the reasons I love those two tunes. And then it was such a neat thing to play “Big Country,” because it’s one of my favorite things Béla has written. It’s inspiring; it has a profoundness to it. But it’s also uplifting. So that’s been really neat to be able to play that with Béla.

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