Duo-ing Banjos: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn Make It a Family Affair
Abigail Washburn grew up a suburban girl obsessed with China and it was that winding, silk road the ultimately led her to the very American world of folk and bluegrass music.
How’s that for a road less traveled?
It starts in the suburbs of Evanston, Ill., Washington, D.C. and later Minnesota during her high school years. By 19, she’d been to China for the first time and had become the first East Asian Studies major at Colorado College. It was in Colorado where she started dating a musician and fell in with a group obsessed with bluegrass and old time music.
Then came the first turn in her winding road. At a party one night someone put on Doc Watson’s solo version of “Shady Grove.” To her, in that moment, it was an answer and a challenge–an answer to a question that plagued her during her journeys in China, and a challenge to follow an unexpected path.
On her travels, she often was asked by Chinese friends to describe American culture. “I was not good at it,” she says. “I just wasn’t really sure how to describe what was so special about America.” She would tell them it was a diverse culture of people from countries all over the world. But, that night at that party when Doc Watson’s voice sang over his banjo picking, she had a revelation. “I was totally struck by it. I thought to myself there’s something in there that’s American. It’s eternal, but American. I have to learn what it’s about. I think maybe the answer to my Chinese friends is in this music.”
The banjo, imported from Africa, was the heart of American music when combined with the fiddling of the Irish and the Scots. It was the dance music of the plantation and the foundations of blues and bluegrass, of jazz and R&B. “It’s a living tradition I have to share,” she says.
Washburn brings that tradition with her husband, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, to a duo show at the Williamsburg Lodge on May 24, as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. The tour with Fleck, her husband, is the result of another collaboration: the son they had last year. His birth prodded them into playing together, something they’ve wanted to do for years.
It’s the latest turn in Washburn’s fantastical career that began when learning about old time music and clawhammer banjo playing became a parallel track, a twin rail to her fascination with China–one obsession feeding the other. That, and one chance encounter after another–a remarkable string of good fortune–landed her where she is today: a songwriter, picker, and singer with a body of eclectic work, married to Fleck, and finally working on their first duo album together.
When she decided to immerse herself in the music, she studied wtih Riley Baugus, the Walkertown, N.C., picker whose work can be heard on the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, as well as on albums by Allison Krauss & Robert Plant, and Willie Nelson. She stayed in his trailer for a week, learning his stylings. “I was just over the moon hearing him sing,” she says.
Learning about it didn’t mean dabbling to Washburn. She’s not that kind of person. Not when it comes to her passions. The first time she went to China in 1996, she hated it. “I thought it was so unpleasant. So polluted. People yelling at me, so loud and noisy. No personal space. I got sick from the pollution,” she says. The language was impossible, even though she’d studied it for a year prior to her trip. She couldn’t speak to anyone. She was lonely.
“I thought maybe I just need to not go there again because I didn’t like it. But, my personality is such that I couldn’t leave it there, couldn’t leave it on a superficial level. So I wanted to find a way I could go a little deeper, see if maybe there’s something there. “
She went back; she couldn’t shake the place. Standing in front of the student dormitory, she watched an old lady with cataracts running after a tow-headed child. The woman invited her to dinner. Over months, Old Lady Wang fed her dumplings and read her poetry. She told her about the Cultural Revolution and how one son died in a work camp. She was mentor and grandmother.
“I fell madly in love with her and then madly in love with China,” Washburn says.
Asked, on a whim, if it was harder to learn Mandarin or the banjo, she links the two. Again. “They are just connected in my life,” she says. “I started learning Mandarin four years before I picked up the banjo. I would study 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., sitting at a desk drawing characters and reading characters and it was full immersion. I had this incredible training, listening to sounds and repeating them. When I sat down to play the banjo, I had this incredibly built skill set hearing a sound and repeating it, and doing it quickly.”
“So I can’t separate them in my mind,” she adds. “The foundation I built learning Mandarin has aided my ability to be a musician.”
Her plan was to move to China, study law at a university there, then find her way into some sort of international law career. “I was one of those angst-y people who thought a lot about life, so law appealed to me as a way people in different countries hope to govern. I thought it would be a really interesting way to understand the Chinese mind and how they governed. I was on my way there. It just didn’t happen.”
What happened was her boyfriend got an opportunity in Nashville and Washburn decided to take a road trip on her way there before moving ultimately to China. She went to the fiddlers gathering at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia. She dropped in on the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Kentucky, though she knew only a few songs. She was jamming with a couple of other women in the hallway when she and another woman were offered a record deal with Sugar Hill on the spot.
It didn’t work out. “I was a crappy musician,” she says. “Understandably, she didn’t want to do it.”
But that night changed Washburn’s course. She moved to Nashville anyway. One morning, she was in line at a coffee shop when the woman in front of her turned around and complimented the shirt she’d bought at a vintage store. She wondered if Washburn was a musician and asked her to send a demo. The woman was an A&R rep for Nettwerk Records. The company came back with a $40,000 deal.
“I could take it as just pure luck or as a challenge life was giving me to make it happen,” she says. “I was also grieving not going to China (recently) when I got the music offer. But I thought I’ve got to do this. This is unbelievable. I’ve got to try this even though I’m really crappy at it. I know I’ll get better. I took on the challenge.”
She joined the all-female group, Uncle Earl, which released several albums, including “Waterloo, TN,” produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.
In 2004, she was at a square dance in Nashville where Fleck was playing. He later told her it was the only time he’d played at one. “We became friends and he found out about me making a record,” she recalls. “He offered to help with some of Traveling Daughter (her solo debut), became a co-producer on the record and then all of a sudden we were together, eager to find ways to do things together so we could spend time together.”
Song of the Traveling Daughter was released to raves in 2005. It included songs she wrote in Mandarin. She credits her label for not balking at including them. “As soon as I knew I wasn’t going to do the Chinese stuff, go to school and try to do the law thing,” she says, “I started incorporating Chinese into my music. It was natural.”
It’s part of the conversation she wants to start with her audience, the effect she wants to have. She sees folk music as a way to begin discussions, externally and internally, that might otherwise not happen.
“Whatever kind of transformation the audience needs to have happen in life as a result of what I could offer them, I wanted that to start,” Washburn says. “Whether it was a conversation in words or a conversation internally between heart and mind. I think the conversation that’s even more important is that internal dialogue, the one we all have about what our purpose is here.”
“He said, ‘Can I be in your band?’ ” she remembers. “All I said was, ‘Are you sure?’ “
The band, The Sparrow Quartet, recorded an album produced by Fleck and toured festivals before returning to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Washburn’s passion about the land led to Afterquake, an EP to benefit the Sichuan Quake Relief, released one year after the quake.
With her band, she performed at schools, universities, and theaters throughout China, collaborating with local musicians, much as Fleck did in Africa for his documentary, Deep in the Heart.
For Washburn and Fleck, their varied interests cross-pollinated at home. “I think we’re really like loving advisors to each other, ” she says. “I certainly learned a ton more about West African and Ugandan and Tanzanian music than I ever thought I would. He certainly never though China would be a priority for him.”
She says Fleck has been her teacher, though not in the way you might expect. She plays clawhammer style banjo; he doesn’t. “I really like things simple and soulful,” she explains. “Bela is driven by virtuosity and new patterns and new ideas. So we come from really different places. Yet he is a major mentor in my life about how to get things done, how to think musically outside the box, and how to just make it your life. How to live a passionate life. “
“He also says I inspire him to think about beauty and to think about what needs to be said in a song…It’s something I value in my life, beauty.”
They are touring with Juno and her mother. She feeds him before shows and during the set break. “It’s wonderful. We are so fortunate to be able to tour in a bus with my mom. He gets to have consistent bed times, a controlled environment. It’s really fun.”
Washburn says only after having Juno last year did the timing seem right. Fleck has had a long, established and remarkably diverse career. Now, she’s established as well. Recording the new album between sessions nursing Juno has taken some time. They’re not finished, but she’s excited. “The music we’re creating together feels really awesome,” she says. “With a clawhammer and a three-finger banjo roll you can create the most beautiful water-flowing pocket. Bela and I are striving for that and feel like we’re accomplishing that on this record. On other occasions, you can be funky and groovy, too. We feel like we’ve got a wide-ranging, beautiful record to offer.”
They wrote a few originals, dipped into traditional songs, including murder ballads and, of course, songs inspired by Africa and China.
Its’ been eight years since they first played together as a duo, a benefit for her grandmother’s church, another one of those magic moments on her path. “When we sat down to play the first time, it was really great,” she says. “We didn’t have to rehearse for hours. We didn’t have to figure out our arrangements. We just intuitively moved freely and easily together. We really enjoyed being on stage together. We said this is something we should do again someday. When Juno was born, we said we don’t want to be apart. It inspired us to revisit the duo.”