Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn: Dueling Banjos Come to the Barre Opera House

By Mike Dunphy

Photo by Noelle Panepento.

When Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn take the stage, they could conceivably stand back-to-back, walk 10 paces, turn, and fire off a salvo of plucking, raking, and strumming—thanks to the inherent duel they present between two distinct banjo styles—bluegrass and claw hammer.

Fleck plays the classic three-finger bluegrass style developed by Earl Scruggs, with attachable finger picks, while Washburn plays claw hammer, an older form of banjo playing that reaches back to the instrument’s West African roots which uses more open tunings and rhythmic strumming, and is played with bare fingers. Fleck summed up the difference, with a wry grin, in an interview with Paste magazine as, “Her playing is natural, but mine is unnatural.”

While the husband and wife may have initially had some concerns about pairing the styles, which are usually kept separate, audiences have been quick to give their approval, with their 2014 album, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, winning the Grammy for Best Folk Album. With Echo in the Valley, released in 2017, the duo adopted a banjos-only policy for instrumentation, with no guest players, and nothing that cannot be duplicated in a live setting.

Central Vermonters can witness the dueling banjo styles on Saturday, April 6, at the Barre Opera House.

Looking ahead to the show, Fleck was also kind enough to sit down speak with The Bridge about his pride in the banjo, his relationship with Washburn, the interplay of the two styles, and Vermont’s musical energy.

The Bridge: Steve Martin said you can’t play a sad song on the banjo. Is there there any truth to that?

Bela Fleck: None at all. Banjo can do sad.

After so many years playing banjo, what continues to draw you to the instrument?

Fleck: I still love sitting and playing it. It’s like having a piano in your lap. The sound is very compelling and the possibilities keep on showing themselves.

Both you and Abigail have said you have a lot of pride in the banjo. Can you clarify what the pride is? 

Fleck: Embedded in the story of the banjo is the story of America, the slaves bringing it, and all the cultures adopting it and adding themselves to it. It is multicultural and an underdog to boot, due to all the misconceptions about it.

Has playing with Abigail’s claw hammer style of play changed or improved your own playing in any way?

Fleck: Yes, it has given fresh ideas to try, and a new style to adapt to and collaborate with.

You’ve referred to the claw hammer and bluegrass styles as two different worlds. Have you discovered any places where they connect? Or have you forged connections?

Fleck: There are very few songs that are played on both, but there are a few. Having both styles in our household adds to a bigger understanding of the whole banjo world.

You’ve played in so many different configurations in your long career. What are the benefits of playing as a duo? 

Fleck: I love being responsible for making the music complete with just two people. I have tons of space to paint within the songs, sometimes I’m rhythmic, sometimes I’m the bass player on the low cello banjo. It’s creative and fun. I love the duo format. And Abby is an incredible partner, with solid intuitive banjo structures I can build on top of and an honest and beautiful vocal ability.

As you are married to each other, does the personal relationship manifest in the music in any way?

Fleck: It’s amazing sometimes to us that not only do we get to be partners in life and in raising our children, but we get to make music together as well, which is nearly as intimate as the other stuff. We do have to stay on top of the business, but we can even enjoy that part.

When it comes to banjo playing and bluegrass/folk music, does Vermont have any standing or reputation in that community?

Fleck: Vermont has its own energy, and it manifests itself in all the music that comes from there. I believe that location does stamp a person in his or her attitude and what one thinks is important to express. To me Vermont is iconoclastic, earthy, and warm.

How do you approach performing at a venue like the Barre Opera House?

Fleck: We are happy to get to play there. I have been there a couple of times but not Abby, although she’s seen shows there. I think it will be warm and iconoclastic! Looking forward to responding to its unique energy.

Is there anything you want the audience to take from the show besides entertainment?

Fleck: We like it when folks leave with some more connection to roots and history, and maybe, we can inspire some ideas. We will also be doing a banjo raffle for a local nonprofit, so one person will actually take home a banjo!

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn will play at Barre Opera House on April 6 at 7:30 pm. Tickets start at $45.50.

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