A FEW MINUTES WITH… Bela Fleck
By Don Wilcock
Photographs by Rudy Lu
“I can’t pretend that I don’t appreciate those Grammys, though I would be much hipper if I pretended I could care less!” Banjo master Bela Fleck has won 16 Grammy Awards and has been nominated 30 times since 1998. He has been nominated in more different categories than any instrumentalist in Grammy history. And yet he comes across completely unaffected. “The truth is I don’t do this for Grammys. I do it because I love music, and I’m curious. I love to find new settings for the banjo – a noble and often maligned instrument.”
Fleck and his re-united band the Flecktones co-headline a concert on Saturday (August 5) at The Egg’s Hart Theatre (NOTE: The concert was originally scheduled for the Palace Theatre). In a press release Fleck states, “The Flecktones and I are thrilled to be touring with the one and only Chick Corea, along with one of his most beloved and hard-hitting bands, the Elektric Band. It’s hard to think of a better musical role model, as he continues to shine his vital creative light at 76 years old, and illuminates new directions for us all to explore.”
Chick Corea has taken home 22 Grammys and was an early influence on Fleck, who first heard Corea with Return to Forever in the 1970s in a concert that encouraged him to further his experimentation with rock and jazz on the banjo before founding the Boston-based Tasty Licks.
Bela Fleck has since built a storied career in a dizzying array of styles as eclectic as his record for the widest variety of Grammys. From 1981 to ’88, he led the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival through five albums that that broke that style out of the box into rock and country music.
In the late ’80s he also collaborated with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor in an acoustic super-group called Strength in Numbers and became a Nashville resident, appearing on albums by Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Gatlin Brothers and many others. His 1988 appearance on the PBS-TV “Lonesome Pine Special” series marked the beginning of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones with Howard Levy, Victor Lemonte Wooten and Wooten’s brother, Roy (aka Futureman). This is the band that will perform on Saturday.
In 2008 he recorded The Enchantment, a duet record with Chick Corea that won a Latin Grammy and has led to a fruitful ongoing duo tour, as well as the 2010 double live album, Two.
The following are Fleck’s emailed answers to my questions sent from Europe where he was touring. I interviewed him in 2014 when he performed in the area with his wife, clawhammer banjoist and singer Abigail Washburn. Their album together, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, won the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk album.
Q: In 2014 you told me that playing with your wife Abigail Washburn’s singing “is the highlight of our relationship honestly. It’s a highlight of our romantic relationship, too.” Do you still feel that way? You’re touring with her in the fall. Other plans?
A: Now I’d say that our relationship is the highlight of my life. And the fact that we can share music is a big piece of it. But if we didn’t, I’d still consider myself to be very fortunate to have found her! We’ve made a new album, titled Echo in the Valley, which drops in October. This one represents a lot of growth for us musically. And personally – we had to learn to dig deeper together.
Q: Has your four-year-old son Juno shown any indication that he’s picked up his parents’ musical talent?
A: He’s certainly musically intelligent. If he wants to play music, he will be great at it. He has a great sense of pitch, when singing. But it’s up to him. We’re not pushing it above anything else. Golf is his favorite.
Q: In 2014 you told me, “The fact my parents split up is central to my whole drive as a musician. I found music. It was the answer for me. It solves a lot of problems for me as a person. I poured myself into a place where I could find self-worth, and I think I struggled with that a lot, and I think that’s been a drive for me. That might be why I work so hard and my trying to prove constantly that I’m worthwhile as a musician is all central to that initial loss.” How do you balance being a father with being a traveling musician now?
A: There is some healing, and some sadness. It is now harder for me to leave on a tour when I am performing without them, and I think it’s best for Juno if I am around most of the time. But I am – and traveling as a family is very sweet. I keep the times away as short as possible.
Q: Have you forgiven your father? 2014: “Sometimes I want to thank my father for (leaving us) because sometimes people who come from copasetic family situations don’t end up having the same set of drives.”
A: I have. He is who he is.
Q: “Rocket Science” was your first CD with the original Flecktones in almost two decades, with pianist-harmonica player Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist-Drumitarist Roy “Futureman” Wooten. Why now?
A: Actually, Rocket Science was made several years back, for the reunion of the original Flecktones. We toured it for a year, took a couple of years off and regrouped last year for a couple of weeks. Everyone loved being together again, and we were looking towards what we might do next when Chick got in touch. I’d like to see us meet yearly to maintain our connection, and one day do a more concerted effort, a new project…
Q: Was it like getting back on the bicycle doing it again?
A: Very much so. The band had stayed together after Howard left. Having him back brought back the understanding of the original impulse for playing together – four freaks basically – like minds.
Q: What was the most important “improvement” you made as a group in that time?
A; Everyone had improved as musicians in the 20 some years since playing together, so I’d say – the promise of what we each might have become appears to have been kept. It doesn’t always work that way!
Q: You’re known for playing extremely eclectic runs on the banjo, an instrument that was once considered very limited in the kinds of music played on it. During your career, many musicians have expanded the role of other instruments. Do you take any credit for opening those flood gates?
A: I figure I am an influence mostly to banjo players and bluegrassers who are extended outside of the form. But occasionally I run into someone outside of that world who
credits me with providing some inspiration. I have been at this professionally since 1977, so there’s a sense of becoming an elder now.
Thanks for spreading the word about the show, we’re looking forward to it. Big Time!