They are known as music royalty, the king and queen of the banjo, and they are performing at the Barre Opera House on April 6 at 7:30 p.m., as part of its Celebration Series.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn meld two distinct styles of banjo-playing into one of the most distinctive musical experiences we’re likely to hear from the instrument. They are so good, in fact, that their first album together, “Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn,” released in 2014, won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. Their second album, 2017’s “Echo in the Valley,” takes their double banjo combination of three-finger and clawhammer styles “to the next level and finds things to do together that we had not done before,” according to Fleck.
Expect to hear a lot of the music from that album at the concert.
Bluegrass banjo (Fleck) and clawhammer banjo (Washburn) are actually two fairly different ways of playing the instrument, and in the hands of lesser players, the sounds might not blend so well. But in this married couple, each is a great player. Apparently upon first meeting early this century, besides the physical attractions, they knew they wanted to play music together.
Fleck is perhaps the better known of the two, notably as frontman of his band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He’s a bluegrass banjo wizard who played with the highest echelon of performers in that style of music and later branched out to become an innovator of jazz, classical and world music, with more multi-category Grammy wins than any other artist, 15 altogether.
Washburn is herself a formidable talent with her songwriting, theater performance, and even Chinese diplomacy by way of the banjo. Washburn, an Illinois native, has a deep connection to Montpelier. She moved to Vermont in 1999 after graduating from Colorado College. While living in the Vermont capital, where she worked as a lobbyist for three years, Washburn bought a clawhammer banjo and got her official start in music, playing old-time string music as a member of the Burlington-based Cleary Bros. Band before heading to Nashville in 2002.
“It’s a really, really important part of my history of becoming a musician,” Washburn told The Times Argus in a 2008 interview. “My whole music career has a ton to do with Vermont.”
About 13 years ago, Washburn was offered a record deal in the halls of a bluegrass convention in Kentucky, which changed her trajectory from becoming a lawyer in China to a traveling folk musician. Since then, she has been recording and touring a continuous stream of music. Her music ranges from the “all-g’earl” string band sound of Uncle Earl to her bilingual solo release, “Song of the Traveling Daughter” (2005), to the mind-bending “chamber roots” sound of the Sparrow Quartet, to the rhythms, sounds and stories of “Afterquake,” her fundraiser CD for the Sichuan earthquake victims. The New York Times praised her 2011 release, “City of Refuge,” written with Kai Welch, saying the songs “mingle Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.”
Fleck and Washburn have played as a duo since they first met, trying impromptu duets at picking parties, joining for a few tunes at benefits and occasional radio shows together. Following the birth of their first son, they decided the best way to keep them all together would be to play together more. They took their duo on the road beginning in August 2013, with their eponymous debut album, featuring only banjos and their voices, released a year later.
What can you expect to hear from this duo at the Barre Opera House? From their award-winning first album we hear a variety of very interesting sounds. Washburn is the singer here, with some vocal backup from Fleck. You can expect a wide range of music from traditional folk songs to originals with compelling instrumentals woven in. On the first CD there are two pieces by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók in a medley, a redo of the Flecktones’ “New South Africa” and the pair’s “Banjo Banjo.”
They are each versed in many forms of music, but the real showcase is musical intimacy. There is a love for tradition, as in the reworked “Railroad” (as in, “I’ve Been Working on the ...”) which contrasts Washburn’s clawhammer style and Fleck’s three-finger jazz-oriented syncopation. She also sings the murder ballad “Pretty Polly.” Their recent album finds the duo delving deeper into the banjo’s ability to fill a lot of space in the aural spectrum. They observed a few strict rules for the recording: They did all the playing; the only instruments used are banjos; and they must be able to perform every recorded song live.
The duo co-wrote all the songs, and several reflect re-imaginings of traditional Appalachian music and original tunes. The duo’s approach, according to Fleck, is “front-porch, minimalist aesthetic.” The album includes seven banjos between them, from a bluegrass banjo to a banjo ukulele and a massive, restored 1905 upright banjo bass. Washburn’s vocals are full of emotion, with a wide range in her delivery. She has a voice that demands attention.
Fleck and Washburn have married their instruments and styles as they have their lives. It’s a unique performance, where both clawhammer devotees and bluegrassers get to hear superb playing from the best players in their respective styles.