Banjo players are a key element in Nashville music circles, a community that’s home to an array of instrumentalists, singers and songwriters. So it was inevitable that two of the best players — Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn — would eventually meet. It was a little less inevitable that they would marry, have a child and tour together as a duo, despite their quite different styles of playing.
“We met at a square dance of all things,” says Fleck with a laugh, ahead of the duo’s SCP Special Concert on May 12 (also on the bill is the Del McCoury Band). “It’s the only one I’ve every played at in Nashville. Abby was there dancing. I thought she was beautiful. She just lights up when she dances.”
Joining in the laughter, Washburn adds, “I’m kind of an idiot when I dance. I get real happy and look so silly.”
Now eight years later, the couple goes out on tour accompanied by their 4-year-old son, Juno. They both admit they’ve found that spirit of a family band on the road. “We realized this is the time to put our other projects into another part of our lives and make this the focal point,” Washburn says. “So we can travel together and be with our son.”
A 15-time Grammy winner, Fleck, 58, is considered by many to be the world’s leading banjo player; throughout his career, he has reinvented the image and sound of the instrument. Over the years, his three-finger style of playing has dazzled fans of his ensembles, the New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. He’s also known for his experiments with jazz, rock and classical music. The documentary film “Throw Down Your Heart” (2009) followed him to Africa, where he played with local musicians and researched the African roots of the banjo.
Born in Evanston, singer-songwriter Washburn, 39, grew up in Maryland and Minnesota. She favors the clawhammer banjo style and has mixed her interest in Chinese music and culture (she is fluent in Mandarin) with her love of the Appalachian folk sound most associated with the banjo (she’s also a member of the all-female string band Uncle Earl).
Those in the know would think these two players’ distinct styles of playing wouldn’t mesh. Fleck and Washburn admit they felt the same until her grandmother insisted they entertain at a family gathering, which led to a performance at her house of worship, the Unitarian Church of Evanston.
“That was the big test,” Washburn says. “It’s like a relationship. If the chemistry is there, you can make a lot of things happen. But at first I wasn’t sure our styles would sound good together.”
Their musical partnership is unprecedented among banjo players. Fleck doesn’t know of any three-finger and clawhammer banjo players performing together — which made their musical exploration even more intriguing. “Our styles are quite different but they also are related by a lot of common threads,” Fleck says. “The shared banjo repertoire is played in both styles, so we had that starting point.”
Fleck and Washburn (she’s also a vocalist; he isn’t but does join in occasionally on backing vocals) both have backgrounds in traditional music but they didn’t want this new project to be “simply trad.” “We wanted it to be expressive of who we are in this day and age,” Fleck says. “To make something new with the music and not simply be a throwback.”
They also discovered they had a great rapport onstage. “It was very comfortable,” Fleck says. “Something about it was very satisfying.”
The couple released a self-titled album in 2014 and is currently working on a batch of new songs — many of which will be performed at Symphony Center. But this duo work doesn’t mean Fleck and Washburn are ignoring their other interests.
Fleck recently released the album “Juno Concerto,” featuring his concerto for banjo and orchestra, recorded with the Colorado Symphony (also included on the disc are two pieces with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider). “Every note of the concerto is colored by the experience of being a new father and how that has changed what is important to me as a person, as well as what I want to express through music,” Fleck says.
Washburn describes her side project, the Wu-Force, as “a kung-fu, Appalachian indie-folk-rock trio” featuring banjo, guzheng (Chinese zither) and keyboards. “It’s a fun and wacky group because we’re looking at the world from these odd corners,” she says. “For me, it’s like a playground.”
But for the next few weeks, Fleck and Washburn will be on a tour bus with a four-year-old. It wasn’t until Juno was born that the thought of touring together actually became a working idea. Now they wouldn’t do it any other way.
Plus, Juno is proving to be musical in his own right.
“In addition to always singing to himself, he loves to clog dance,” Washburn says. “He imitates me and has his own moves. On occasion, he’ll come out on stage and clog with me. He’s definitely found his part in this family band.”
Mary Houlihan is a Chicago-based arts journalist.