Husband-and-wife banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn speak out and sing out
GREAT BARRINGTON — Banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have earned the right to make a statement.
Following the husband-wife duo's Grammy award-winning, self-titled first album, Fleck and Washburn address political and family events in their second record, "Echo in the Valley," which was released in October.
"There was a lot going on in the world that needed to be reflected in the music for it to be an honest artistic statement of this time, so we were taking out all of the things that were happening with the election and being parents and the process of letting go that you go through," Fleck told The Eagle during a joint telephone interview with Washburn in advance of the couple's concert at The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday night.
While their debut record may have triumphed in the best folk album category at the 2016 Grammys, Fleck and Washburn didn't feel as if their first album reflected a new beginning.
"Instead of working from a completely new creative space together, we relied on a lot of things that we both already knew," Washburn said.
The reason? The birth of their son, Juno, who was an infant when they were recording.
"[My] words of wisdom to other married couples, or couples who are thinking about having children who tour together, is: make the record before you have the infant. It's quite a complicated process trying to nurse every two hours and record in between and get enough sleep to sound good when you sing," Washburn said.
Still, with Fleck's masterful banjo (he's won 13 Grammys in a variety of different genres) and Washburn's singer-songwriter skills propelling the duo's Appalachian sound, remaining true to their pasts worked.
With an increasingly self-reliant Juno around, however, the couple could change their approach for their next project.
"We're really collaborating on the lyrics and the whole song[s] this time," Fleck said.
Aggressive disagreements and compromise were common, he said.
"We would have to find a middle ground that we were both equally fond of, and [it] took a while and took being willing to say, 'I don't like it yet,' or, 'It's not working for me.' And that's tough...because that can feel like a real insult when you're proud of something and your partner says, 'That's not there yet. I can't get into it.' That's harder than when you're playing with a musician that's not your wife or husband," Fleck said.
But the final result was an 11-track record that doesn't waste any time delving into current events. The opening song, "Over the Divide," refers to refugees being pushed "to the edge of another town." In the album's cleanup spot, "Don't Let It Bring You Down" swings for the fences: "Decency's lost while fortune gained. / Rich and weak fools may rule the game." And "Come All You Coal Miners," a song by the late Sarah Ogan Gunning that the duo decided to include, hasn't lost any relevance: "Coal miner won't you wake up and open your eyes and see / what the dirty capitalist system is doin' to you and me."
"We're not saying we're against capitalism, but this song is so strong that it makes you stop and think about it," Fleck said, "and what more do you want as an artist than to find a song that makes everybody stop and think about what they think? And there [are] some people who are upset when we do that song, and there are people who stand up cheer. And I think it's a healthy thing for everyone to experience from either side."
"It's not a personal statement from us," Washburn said. "It's her personal statement that we wanted to share with people because it's so striking."
Still, the inclusion of politics is deliberate, and other tracks don't hold back. The two also have publicly expressed their opposition to Donald Trump. Fleck hasn't always been willing to include politics in his music.
"For a long time, I avoided it carefully, partly because I didn't see why I had a right to have a podium that the audience didn't have, and partly because I didn't want to run people off that were loving the music because they would take sides," said Fleck, whose family used to spend some summers in Stockbridge when he was growing up in New York City.
But Fleck knows folk music has a tradition of "speaking out and singing out," and in Great Barrington, he and Washburn will try to honor that custom by mixing some of their new, pointed songs with old favorites. He hopes it will spark discussion among people with different views.
"Keeping people communicating is the best we can do," Fleck said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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