Interview: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Echoes With Fleck and Washburn

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have powerhouse individual talents; each has followed an estimable career path to where they find themselves today: making complex, but spare, records, writing music together, and touring with their son Juno. These days, they are on the road supporting their new release “Echo In The Valley”, which features mostly songs written by Fleck and Washburn, banjos, Washburn’s strong vocals and very little else. “Echo” is a virtuoso turn by this duo.

The work is a product of its time. It was recorded, says Fleck, “at a  really intense moment around the election and we were absorbing and handling a lot of the things happening in the world that were so divisive and difficult and we had different reactions about how to present that in our writing on the record.  So, there was a lot going on other than just you know is disagreeing on the lyric or melody; there was ‘How do we present what we’re thinking for now in the world and share it with people through our writing?’

But, more than just being a reaction to the external environment, “Echo In The Valley” is also very intentional. Fleck and Washburn decided to create new work from scratch, for the most part. Washburn recalls:  “We did a lot of learning on this record. On the first record we had just had Juno; he was just a few months old when we really started the process recording [that] record, so our windows of time that we had to work and we’re very very limited and so we made a lot of choices based on what we can pull together quickly and without you know the need for lots of pondering and sitting in a room. We chose a lot of things that I had done before that Bela had done before but never recorded or things we had recorded a long time ago.  We did create a few new things together, as well, for that record. But this time we both just had more energy, we had more time while Juno was at school and we decided to really dig in and try to create new songs together from scratch.”

At live shows supporting the CD, according to Washburn, “ ‘Take Me to Harlan’  gets a big response from the audience because I sing and dance at the same time.” So, too, according to Fleck and Washburn, does an instrumental medley which appears in the middle of the “Echo” CD which features traditional tunes mixed in with a rendition of Fleck’s “Big Country”. Fleck says: “We were just sort of playing it every night and then we said what we might as well record it…We recorded it ….everybody who heard it went, “Well that should be on there.”

Which is not to say that the collaborators sail calmly into agreement on such a creative project:

Washburn: “We’re married couple. In any marriage, if you say you never have disagreements, we don’t believe it.”

Fleck:              “It’s how you handle having disagreement”

He expanded in the context of “Echo”: “But what I discovered is that Abby and I, although in general, we’re very in sync on how we felt about things we have very different perspectives about what to say about it…She’s much more coming from an inclusive place and I was more coming from an angry place. She was coming more from a healing place. So the lyrics we would both come up with, we would have a “free write”. You go write for 10 minutes and I’ll go write for 10 minutes. And as we finish the song started getting really proud that we been able to figure out how to complete a song that we were both really proud of the lyrics.”

Washburn’s voice is the central instrument in the new collection, as she takes on lead vocal chores admirably in each song other than the aforementioned medley. The delivery is powerful, at once stout and sweet. Her vocals also contribute a rich vocal line to accompany some of the selections. According to Fleck, “I think there are three different places where we used Abby’s voice just singing notes and all of them to me really bring a lot to what was an instrumental section and brings an evocative warm feeling.” He explains, “After we have a song like recorded and we thought well let’s mess around and see what happens if you hum along or just a found something because it sounded like it could a little more something. The trick is what we do that we can do live it will if it’s possible for us to do then we can do it if we could is not possible for us to do it [live], then we can’t do it….Abby has the hard job on the record because she has to sing and play all the parts where I just play.”

“Echo In The Valley” was produced by Fleck, who continues his bright, level style which was exemplified in his producing turn on Sierra Hull’s award-winning “Weighted Mind”. “Echo” has that same spare, but intense, vibe. It’s the result of a well-thought plan. According to Fleck,” That’s what we do in our basement in and we have certain mics in a certain approach trying to make a very few instruments sound really big.” He continues “I like to mike the banjos with really great mikes, but I like to use a lot of mikes. Often people like to use just one or two but I like to use four and I try to get a stereo image of the banjos by maybe placing some of the mics around in a circle around the circle of the banjos or right to left and then I pan them in the spectrum, so that it hears more with that what the ear hears if you were sitting in front of the banjos. We have only two banjos on each track. There’s room for you to actually feel that the right and left of each banjo out in stereo image.”

One song with an emotional payload is “Let It Go”. Washburn explains, “It came from watching our son grow up and being sad to have him grow up so quickly…about who is becoming…But there’s also these moments, that are like “O my gosh this this moment will never be here again these days will never come back’,” She recalls, “Even when we are writing, I  would cry when we were just playing the riff or I was trying to sing the song over it and I would have to collect myself and start again, because I was so moved bit it. Fleck rejoins: “What’s interesting about it is when we played it worked for Juno when we get finished and he started crying and that never happened on any song with ever done and we were shocked.

So, too with “Younger me” and “Homes across the Blue Ridge Mountains”. Says Fleck,” People are really sort of drawn to it, you know, going from a real plaintive sound to the real looming notion of loss.”

Fleck and Washburn also include a lamentation from the perspective of a coal miner’s wife, reflecting their sensibility with the mountain folk. According to Fleck, “That that song we did not write.  It’s just such a great song and it presents a perspective of a very angry woman who wrote it (Sarah Hogan Gunning) and she was living that experience and she was furious about it and there’s that very powerful line in that song” “Let’s list sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell” and then afterwards that somebody afterwards asked her, “Do you know what capitalism is?” According to Washburn, Gunning answered, “Is that like \ where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor?”

Washburn and Fleck have harnessed their respective whirlwinds to create “Echo In The Valley”.

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