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Kindred Strings: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

And you guys recorded each of the album’s tracks live, playing all of the instruments which were variations of traditional banjo.Why was it important to have that live organic feel to the record?

Béla: Limitations actually define you. If you’re everything, then what are you? Every group, every musician, has their limitations. Those are the walls around you that you build your house in, or you build your life in. So with us, for one thing, to have a bunch of people play with us—or a lot of other instruments—we wouldn’t be able to duplicate it live. In essence, I think this collaboration was about the two of us playing our banjos together. So if that’s the rule, that it’s all about playing our banjos and Abby singing, then we can spend a lot of creative energy trying to figure out unique ways to do that. But if we opened it up to everything else—horn sections, string sections, jams with friends, drums, etc—it would be the kitchen sink.

But also, it fits into our record ethos, which is like, fitting it into our lives. If it’s just the two of us, we can go downstairs to the basement, get our engineer over here, and do it as a part of our lifestyle. It’s just a lot simpler than calling up people and having to conceptualize everything up front. There’s a lot of reasons; I guess that’s not the best reason…

Abigail: One thing that Bela and I both value is when you go to see an artist live and you fall in love with it or have a special experience with it, it can really be a bummer when you pick up the record and it sounds so different. So there’s this value in the idea that when people come to see us and pick up the record and take it home—which we really encourage them to do, because first of all it creates a stronger relationship between us and our music with them, but also because it supports the local nonprofits when they buy it—we want them to put it on in there car and be like, “Yeah, that’s what I loved about what I saw tonight.”

Béla: Right. It reinforces them being glad they bought the record, and hopefully they’ll stick with us and check us out in the future. Which, you know, most of my favorite artists, I follow them. Even years down the line, whether all the records knock me out or not, I tend to want to follow them, once I fall for somebody.

You were just talking about “years down the line…” What I think is so interesting about you guys is that, obviously you’re married, and your music is a reflection of your life, and your life is a reflection of your music. It’s kind of your creative goal to have that longevity and just keep making music…

Béla: Yeah, and I think if we had a role model for the duo, it’s more like Doc Watson or somebody like that who’s out there on the scene. You know, somebody that’s playing little clubs, theatres, and festivals, and just out there playing guitar with one or two people in an acoustic group—holding the flame for that kind of music. This duo has a piece of that. And it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing either of us is going to do, or that everything we’re going to do will have this character. Because it won’t be that way. But this is where we do this. I think there will be a time when we want to have the banjo orchestra, or have four banjo players onstage playing with us, but in a surprising way, making cool sounds that nobody has ever heard, at least not for a long time. But I think we still have a lot we can do between the two of us. We’re not bored yet. [Laughs.]

What was the inspiration behind the title for the new record, Echo In The Valley?

Abigail: It’s drawn from the song, “Take Me To Harlan.” That song is really about the struggle in returning home. It’s a place that you love, but it’s also a place that’s full of struggle and hard memories, too. That’s not true for everybody, but I think it is for a lot of people. It’s that feeling that it’s hard to go back, but in the end your heart is tied to that place. And so you just feel that urge to return. I think that’s a lot of what Echo In The Valley means for me…about 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. It can be really comforting to listen to that echo—that echo deep in the valley. It reminds us that we are tied endlessly and relentlessly to the past, and it will undoubtedly be a part of our future. In that, I feel some hope. That if we shift some of our behaviors, we can set new patterns that start to repeat themselves, and echo and self-perpetuate.

Obviously both of you have a deep emotional connection to music. Abigail, in other interviews you’ve said that it’s really important for you to connect a mood or a feeling to the songs that you sing. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to include “Come All You Coal Miners” on the record? That’s one of the songs that’s really important to you, right?

Abigail: Yeah, talk about an echo from the past. Coal mining is still a present issue in America, however, the basic idea of humans not treating humans well is what she’s singing about. What I love about that song is that it’s from a female perspective, and in American old-time music, we haven’t recorded to many of those perspectives. That repertoire is a limited pool. And she speaks from such a place of deep emotion and personal experience, and I just really dig her. Sara Ogan is her name—she’s not here anymore. She ended up being discovered by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and they ended up bringing her to the Newport Folk Festival before her life was over. But she was born and raised in the coal camps in East Kentucky, and had a very strong opinion about it, as you can hear in the song.

Béla: One of the things I love about playing with Abby is that I get to explore moods that I don’t tend to get into in other music that I play with. When I’m playing instrumental music, it’s hard to get into that same zone as when there are lyrics that show you exactly what’s happening emotionally. There’s a lot of different places to go, and I’ve really been enjoying that about the duo.

So to wrap this up, Béla, I know that after this tour, you have a bunch of dates with Brooklyn Rider, and then some trio dates with Victor Wooten and Futureman. Are you excited to kind of explore these other creative avenues with these guys? Do you have plans already, or are you just taking it day by day?

Béla: Well, we plan stuff way ahead. But yeah, I did some touring with Brooklyn Rider in the past, and I’ve written a couple of big pieces—by big I mean long and complex pieces—for them that we play together. And I love those guys, and I’m really excited that we’ve managed to find the time to get together and play. It’ll be over before we know it—that’s the sad part about it. And then, with the Flecktones, we were invited to play at the Snarky Puppy festival down in Miami. I was looking for a way to do it that made sense, and they said I could do anything I wanted. I thought it would be an opportunity to go back with Victor and Futureman, and redo the trio years that we had, which was a very creative and exciting time—right after Howard Levy left the Flecktones—that lasted for about two and a half years. And there’s a whole repertoire that none of us have played since then that will be fun to bring back. So it won’t take a ton of time or take me away from my family for very long, but it will give me a little bit of musical inspiration and some different experiences.

Flexing different muscles.

Béla: Exactly, and we’re both always looking for that balance. We really want this duo to be the center of what we do, because it connects our family and holds us together and keeps us with our son and helps with the traveling musician syndrome, which is where the father is away all the time and never gets to see his family. We’ve managed to reduce that down to a pretty manageable amount by touring together. But like you say, I still need to blow it out and play with Chick Corea or Victor and Futureman and Howard, or Sam Bush and those guys every once in awhile. But it doesn’t have to be all the time for me to be satisfied. It’s nice to touch on it, though.

And Abby has a whole world that she occupies without me, with this whole Chinese part of her. And it’s really important that she doesn’t let that go, because it’s a big special part of who she is. So that helps us understand each other and support each other. When we go off and do these other things, we’re proud of each other. Like I’m proud of Abby that she speaks fluent Chinese and collaborates with Chinese musicians. I think she feels the same way that I can go out and play with an orchestra, or play jazz, or whatever the heck it is that I do.

Totally, I can feel the love! You mentioned your son—he’s on the road with you guys. Is he enjoying himself?

Abigail: I think so. He’s really happy, and we’re so happy to be with him. He’s only four and a half now.

Béla: There could be a point where he’s like, “I don’t want to go on the road.” And we’ve talked to other musicians that have had that happen, where they’d bring their kid on the road, and at one point or another they mutinied, and said, “No! I want to be with my friends at school!” But so far, he’s loving being with us, and we’re going to cherish that.

That’s great. How soon until he gets his first banjo?

Béla: Oh, he’s had his first banjo for a long time. He doesn’t play it that much. But we’ve discovered that when you combine a clawhammer banjo player and a three-finger style banjo player—and they mate—your offspring will be a golfer [Laughs]. He’s been golfing since he was two, and with a lot of intensity. He’s very good at it.

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