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Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn: A match made in banjo nirvana

“Vocally she’s rather amazing, one of those singers who speaks the truth when she sings,” Bela Fleck says of his wife and duet partner, Abigail Washburn.
“Vocally she’s rather amazing, one of those singers who speaks the truth when she sings,” Bela Fleck says of his wife and duet partner, Abigail Washburn.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn were bound to meet, even collaborate.

When you’re virtuosos in the banjo world, chances are good you’ll at least make each other’s acquaintance.

Meet they did and collaborate they did, too. And now they’re a family, married with a young child and touring on their first album.

“Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn” is a collection of songs cast austerely and organically, only in Washburn’s emotive voice and the pair’s provocative conversations via the banjo.

Thursday night at the Crown Center Sheraton, Fleck and Washburn will showcase the album when they perform as part of the Folk Alliance International Conference.

The two had recorded together before. In 2005, they were in the Sparrow Quartet with cellist Ben Sollee and violinist Casey Driessen. In 2008, that group released an album that fused traditional American music with Asian influences. (Washburn has studied Chinese culture and toured Tibet as part of a U.S. government-funded cultural exchange.)

The All Music Guide wrote that the album offered “an unorthodox brand of folk music that combines the old-timey strains of Uncle Earl (Washburn’s previous group) with Eastern scales, Chinese lyrics and a double-scoop of twangy banjo.”

But their debut as a duo was completely different. And so was life. By the time they started recording in 2013, they had married and welcomed their son, Juno.

“Parenthood has been the biggest change for both of us,” Fleck said, “and it informs every part of our new life.”

The goal going into the studio was to limit arrangements to banjos and vocal only, which required finding the kinds of songs that were suitable to that and to Washburn’s voice.

“Vocally she’s rather amazing, one of those singers who speaks the truth when she sings,” Fleck said by email. “She has to pick her material very carefully, because if she isn’t deeply committed to the lyric, she can’t sing it.

“We started out by recording the handful of songs we already had been playing together that were unrecorded. Once we had these down, we figured out what was missing that would make it a complete offering.”

Fleck said they didn’t define a cohesive direction or theme, but they had the same sense of what they wanted the music to accomplish.

“With each piece we attempted to create an arc and arrangements that took the listeners and us on a journey,” he said. “Every verse and chorus needed its own special quality; accompaniment was as important to us as solos or lead vocals.”

The other element they needed to navigate: Their varying techniques.

“She comes from the old-time banjo world, you can call it frailing, claw hammer or drop-thumb-type playing,” Fleck said. “I am a three-finger player, inspired by Earl Scruggs, so our techniques are quite different. She is a great accompanist and fiddle-tune player, and she comes up with great banjo settings for her songs that her voice can live atop.”

They figured out how to accommodate those differences and use them to accentuate each other’s strengths, a process that changed both as players, Fleck said.

“She’s had to push harder technically, while I’ve had to refine my playing to be more song-oriented and less solo-istic,” he said. “I still get plenty of rope to improvise and play hot stuff on the banjo, but the real fun for me is doing everything I can to make these songs feel complete with just our two banjos and Abby’s voice.”

The album’s track list includes originals and traditional songs, like the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” and “Railroad,” the duo’s meditative take on “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

In his review of the album for National Public Radio, critic Tom Moon praises their remodeling of that “warhorse” song:

“She emphasizes the work-song cadence while glancing gently at the blues, and at the same time somehow conjures a wide-eyed sense of wanderlust — a feeling ported directly from that long-gone age when the railroad inspired reverence. She’s so un-contrived and uncomplicated and entirely believable, she could be from that era.”

That’s an opinion about his wife that Fleck shares: “She’s very honest, open and artsy.”

Thursday night, their Folk Alliance audience will hear versions of those songs that won’t necessarily sound exactly like they do on the record. As well as learning how to fuse their techniques and strengths into a singular voice, the two have learned to give each other the space to improvise and perform in the present — no strings attached, you could say.

“(Our shows are) intimate and acoustic,” he said, “and the songs do have different trajectories from night to night, partly because of the freedom we both have within the duo and partly because of what each audience and each performing space bring.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

THURSDAY

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn perform at 9 p.m. Thursday in the Atlanta Room of the Crown Center Sheraton as part of the Folk Alliance International Conference and Music Fair. Bob Walkenhorst and Jeff Porter perform in the same room at 8 p.m. For tickets ($25 per night or day session) and a full schedule of events and performances, go to FolkAlliance.org. Tickets also will be available at the Folk Store, 509 Delaware St., and at the door the evening of performance.

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