Remember the old adage about what happens to the family that plays together? Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn certainly do.
One of the primary reasons these two pioneering voices of the banjo, who also happen to be husband and wife, tour as a duo is to stay together.
In the past, however, collaborative concerts were sporadic events squeezed into extensive and separate performance schedules. Fleck, a multiple Grammy winner and onetime Lexingtonian, has juggled shows in recent years with jazz icon Chick Corea, bluegrass/classical bassist Edgar Meyer, the contemporary string quartet Brooklyn Rider and his long-running fusion group The Flecktones. Washburn worked extensively with the all-female bluegrass troupe Uncle Earl before exploring a world of banjo possibilities that took her from Appalachia to China.
But after the couple welcomed son Juno last year, a renewed focus was placed on duo shows. It was practical, as the two were able to tour together with the baby in tow, as well as prophetic in that Fleck and Washburn have also begun work on their first fully collaborative recording.
"We knew it was a new chapter and new epic era in our lives when Juno came along," Washburn, 36, said by phone last week. "I'm not sure I would tour any other way. I would really not want to be separated from Juno at this point, and I know that it's very hard for Béla to be separated from him. So there is this comprehensive satisfaction to being together on the road because, luckily, it really does work well musically. And on a personal level, it's just so special.
"I absolutely love it," Fleck, 55, said of his touring family life before a concert with Brooklyn Rider in November in Danville. "And I love it for a lot of reasons. One is that it is a wonderful feeling to go out onstage and play with your partner, your wife, and do something really special together and feel like the two of you are complete. At our shows, it's just the two of us onstage and it feels wonderful the whole time. I never feel like, 'Gosh, I wish we had a band' or something like that. It's very intimate.
"The other side of it is that our child is always with us. That's very satisfying, but also very different from any other experience I've ever had as a musician — to travel with your wife and child. And it's lovely."
In the end, though, what Fleck and Washburn are creating is a musical scenario that is as distinctive as any of their other projects: a band made entirely of two banjos. There is no rhythm section, no other instrumental ornamentation, just banjos.
"The challenge of two banjos is probably public perception," Washburn said. "'How could a two-banjo show for a whole night really be good?' But I think when we come together, there is some overlap between the people who like what Béla is doing and like what I do.
"Béla is this incredibly versatile three-finger picker. I can do some two-finger picking in the old mountain style and I also play clawhammer banjo. These roles are very different but they also have this ability to blend into each other, like a rippling waterfall. Water is what comes to my mind — images of water moving in and out with a flowing, rippling effect. That's what Béla and I are going for and what we would like to think we achieve a lot of the time. It can really be a gloriously soothing sound which I don't think is what people picture when they hear two banjos."