Sitting down to listen to My Bluegrass Heart — Béla Fleck’s first “bluegrass” album in more than 20 years and the third in a trilogy (following Drive in 1988 and The Bluegrass Sessions in 1999) — it’s tempting to get lost in the fog of genre, to talk about fiddle solos, mando chops, and quick-picked guitars. That, I think, does a disservice to the spirit of the record.
As is typical for him, Fleck collected a stellar troupe of players that would land on any list of the best in the world, following in the steps of his previous bluegrass albums, which were built around a core band of Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Mark Schatz, and a handful of special guests (Mark O’Connor, Peter Rowan, John Hartford, Earl Scruggs).
My Bluegrass Heart began with a new core band — Paul Kowert, Michael Cleveland, Dominick Leslie, and Cody Kilby — but evolved in other new directions as well. He got the itch to include bandmates from the prior bluegrass records (minus Tony Rice, whose health had begun to suffer at the time of recording, and who passed away in December).
Then, Fleck expanded on his vision for the album after playing with Billy Strings for the first time backstage at a festival. He immediately resolved to record with Strings, pairing him with mandolin maestro Chris Thile for two tracks, “Charm School” and “Slippery Eel.” In the midst of recording My Bluegrass Heart, Fleck realized he was creating something of a boys’ club, so he invited Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle to contribute as well, cutting three songs with them. And lastly he asked his old teacher, Tony Trischka, and his old student, Noam Pikelny, to join the record.
And so My Bluegrass Heart became a record defined by the bluegrass community and how it communicates with itself and the world. It’s less a collection of Béla Fleck songs and more a gathering of incredible bluegrass musicians across the last two generations, getting them together almost to showcase what defines bluegrass today. The spirit and speed of Scruggs and Monroe are there, and yet, on this record, it becomes clear that the music has morphed beyond the early boundaries of the genre. On My Bluegrass Heart, jazz, metal, folk, experimental instrumental music, and rock and roll all frolic freely with bluegrass (as with most of Fleck’s work), and the end result is an album that surprises as much as it grooves.
And to be clear, My Bluegrass Heart grooves. It contains some of the most jig-worthy music of Fleck’s career, and I found myself imagining the band playing in front of a dance troupe more than once. “Vertigo” starts slowly and quickly lurches forward at the beginning of the record. “Slippery Eel” feature a series of quick-stepping virtuosic instrumentals from Strings, Thile, and Fleck. “Charm School” rounds out the first side thoughtfully and patiently. The album closes with the aptly-named “Wheels Up” (feels like flying) and a duet with Thile on “Psalm 136” that feels quietly timeless.
With My Bluegrass Heart, Fleck didn’t just make a trilogy-capping bluegrass record; he emphasized how the community has evolved, all while showcasing the range of talents in the scene today, both in its veterans and its newcomers. There are songs to please the purists, the followers of newgrass, and those listeners who search for new directions.