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ARTICLE: Bluegrass is back for Béla Fleck

KPBS.org

Julia Dixon Evans
December 15, 2021

Béla Fleck is one of the world’s best-known banjo players and has the Grammys to prove it — 15 of them by his count. Fleck will bring a crew of longtime, esteemed bluegrass collaborators to the Balboa Theatre in San Diego on Thursday, on the heels of a brand new album.

In September, he released “My Bluegrass Heart,” which brings home a decades-long trilogy of his bluegrass work — beginning with 1988’s “Drive,” and 1999’s “The Bluegrass Sessions.”

The new album opens with the mesmerizing “Vertigo,” a spiraling, rapid-paced track that feels like a figurative bursting into a room, a triumphant re-entry.

The first time Fleck picked up a banjo was after he heard Earl Scruggs play. The tune? The “Beverly Hillbillies” theme. “Everybody laughs at that because it’s a silly show, but that banjo playing is not silly,” Fleck said.

Scruggs popularized a specific, three-finger style of banjo playing that Fleck still finds captivating. “If someone starts talking to me while I listen to Earl Scruggs playing, I’m like, ‘Listen, can we just hold your thought ’til that banjo stops?'”

‘A team sport’

The album — and the tour — is a return to Fleck’s bluegrass roots, as well as his longtime collaborators. It’s a style that’s highly communal.

“It’s very much a team sport. So you share the ball together, you carry it together,” Fleck said. “It’s very much of a dance, too. It’s not like you just start playing and you play the same way all the way through something. You play differently behind each instrument, each combination of instruments.”

In bluegrass, Fleck said that each leading instrument is like a scene change, and the rotations structure the tune’s overall sound.

“A great bluegrass song travels through all of these different scenarios in the matter of three or four minutes,” Fleck said. “A lot of it is unconscious with the people that have done it for their whole life. You just automatically switch into these different gears. But I think it’s a beautiful thing to watch, just like watching a great basketball team on the floor.”

Many of the musicians Fleck collaborated with on this album are people who have in fact “done it for their whole life,” and have worked with Fleck for decades, including on the first two trilogy albums: dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Sam Bush, bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddle player Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton.

An evolving style

Each of the albums on the trilogy builds on his ever-changing experience with bluegrass. By the time the second album in 1999 rolled around, he’d been performing as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones for years, which significantly shaped his style.

“I had a whole different idea of what bluegrass could be. In other words, I’d been playing jazz and world music and classical music and all these different things, and I thought there was room for a little bit more of it in the bluegrass, without it not being bluegrass,” Fleck said. “And so here I am, 20 years after that, I’ve had a lot longer to think about it. I’ve also really missed that groove, that thing that’s so central — as a banjo player, bluegrass is going to be your center.”

For “My Bluegrass Heart,” which was recorded before the pandemic, Fleck wanted to get to know some of the even newer players in the bluegrass world to keep the trilogy’s evolution going.

New perspectives from younger players

The recent death of former collaborator Tony Rice meant that he couldn’t rebuild the same exact band as on the prior albums, so he began recording songs for the album with younger musicians and new voices, like Sierra Hull, Billy Strings and Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers).

Thile, an Oceanside native, performs on several songs on “My Bluegrass Heart,” including the album’s closer, the curious, lilting “Psalm 136.”

“I have to say what a god Chris Thile has turned out to be as a musician,” Fleck said. Though Thile is not on the list of performers for the San Diego show, Thile grew up listening to all of the other musicians in the show. “He just keeps on moving and moving and going to the next level, and it’s just been a joy to play with him and have that relationship with him.”

And while he loved the freshness the younger players brought to each song, he realized he still wanted to return to the players from the original album, even without Rice. So he added more songs.

‘A community record’

Generally on an album, Fleck said he likes to use a consistent band in each song to tie an album together, especially with music that is inherently diverse. On “My Bluegrass Heart,” it’s something entirely different that forms the glue.

“At a certain point, it became clear that it was a community record and not a band record,” Fleck said.

It’s an intense album, focused and heady — and entirely instrumental. Patches of quietness and contemplation coexist with and meld into rowdier tunes.

Strider,” featuring Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle, is a more unassuming track, but it’s still packed with a certain momentum — an apt summary for the album, and maybe even the humble genre as a whole.

Fleck dedicated the album to guitarist Tony Rice (1951-2020) and pianist Chick Corea (1941-2021), two close friends and collaborators.

A pandemic detour

During the early days of the pandemic, Fleck dove into the editing and mixing process for the album. The project provided him with a creative outlet — as well as his community.

“What was cool about it is when we’re stuck in our house for all this time, I could just go down into my studio and work on this music. It was like I was in the room with Chris, and I was in the room with Sam and Jerry and David Grisman and Billy Strings. It was like they were all in my house, coming through the speakers,” Fleck said.

One thing he didn’t count on: the physicality of actually playing the banjo regularly.

“Banjos are heavy. If you haven’t played the banjo standing up for two years, all of a sudden your back spasms when you stand up there for three or four nights in a row for two and a half hours and sound check another hour and a half each day,” Fleck said. “I’m 63 now. I’ve been at an age where if I don’t use it, I’m going to lose it.”

For this show, he’ll include pieces from the new album alongside bluegrass standards. And while he’s feeling the strain of being away from his family — his wife, singer/songwriter and banjo player Abigail Washburn, and their children — he’s happy to get back to that “team sport.”

“It’s a bit of a party. These guys are blowing my mind every day and making this music swing. Bluegrass can swing,” Fleck added. “Even at these ridiculous tempos that we sometimes get to.”

Béla Fleck performs at the Balboa Theatre Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 at 8 p.m.