Ever-adventurous banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck has toured in recent years with jazz piano giants Chick Corea and Marcus Roberts, the Brooklyn Rider string quartet and West African musicians Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate. Now the 15-time Grammy winner has begun a new adventure: touring with his wife, fellow banjo star Abigail Washburn, and their 21-month-old son.
“I’ve been touring since the ’70s and I never imagined this turn of events. It’s very sweet,” Fleck said in a joint telephone interview with Washburn before their double date Wednesday at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul. “I also never imagined how much fun it is. It’s just us. The show is very personal. It’s very relaxed. It’s kind of like everybody’s in our living room and we’re playing our music for them.”
“That moment onstage is a precious moment in the day,” said Washburn, a graduate of Edina High School. “The rest of the day we’re being with Juno and taking care of business.”
Added Fleck, “We get a lot of good energy from the crowd by sticking our couplehood onstage, which is also something I never imagined I’d ever do.”
Unfortunately, that means neither parent gets to tuck Juno into bed on the tour bus. That task falls to Washburn’s mother or a nanny who has 16 grandkids of her own.
Juno has a roomful of toys on the bus. But he also digs music.
“When something has a real solid groove, he starts shaking,” Dad said.
“He’s not into loud or nonmelodic music,” Mom explained. “He really likes bluegrass and classical and old-time. If it starts getting too obtuse, he loses interest.”
Of course, Juno has his own banjo. Actually, it’s a banjo ukulele. (Fleck uses it onstage each night.)
“His main instruments are banjo and piano and occasionally xylophone,” Dad reported.
“Some marimbas,” Mom added.
“He’ll pluck the strings on the banjo. He gets a nice tone when he plays,” Dad observed. “He plays bass notes on the piano standing up. He enjoys music as much as he enjoys marbles. Maybe not quite as much as he enjoys marbles.”
First duo album
Married since 2009, Fleck and Washburn recorded their first duo album, “Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn,” in their home studio in Nashville, juggling Washburn’s nursing schedule with the baby. The disc was released in October.
This first joint tour finds Fleck, master of progressive banjo ideas, singing harmony for the first time since his bluegrass days with New Grass Revival in the 1980s.
“It was challenging in the studio, and live I don’t worry about it much,” he said. “I’m not singing on all the songs I did in the studio because I don’t want everybody to know how much I suck as a vocalist.”
The tour also finds Fleck, 56, who is laconic at his own concerts, talking more, trying to keep pace with Washburn, 37, a charming chatterbox with a quick sense of humor.
“This is the most talking I’ve ever done onstage,” he admitted. “We improvise as much with the repartee as we do with the music.”
Even though the new album explores songs new and old in traditional and old-time styles, the playing is more adventurous than the notion of two banjos might suggest. There is a lot going rhythmically and tonally.
“There is a lot of creativity in finding our roles together, and making a complete sound with two banjos and a voice,” Fleck said.
Some of that creativity comes through the arrangements. For example, “Railroad” is a Washburn reworking of a very familiar tune.
“Juno had just learned how to bang on the table, which was very exciting,” Washburn recalled. “So I started banging with him and I just started singing ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ which my mom sang to me and my dad sang to me when I was little kid. It just came out in a minor key.”
Wish for ‘A Prairie Home’
Probably the most striking original is Washburn’s “Shotgun Blues,” a classic bluegrass revenge song with a twist. The sound came from finding a funky groove on a cello banjo, which suggested an old blues to her.
“I’m into old-timey murder ballads and it’s usually the women who die,” Washburn said. “I decided it was time to turn it around and make it about the dude being on the defensive. I never actually kill anybody in the song. Like a good Minnesotan, I just shame them relentlessly — at the end of a shotgun, of course.”
Would Fleck and Washburn, who has lots of cousins in Minnesota, consider a move to the Twin Cities to, say, become host and bandleader of “A Prairie Home Companion” when Garrison Keillor is ready to retire?
“I like it. I think you should recommend it,” said Washburn, who appeared on the 2011 program when Sara Watkins become the first “Prairie Home” guest host. “We’re not on the ‘in’ list. I’m so glad Sara had me on the show. I enjoyed meeting Garrison and his daughter, but I’ve never been asked back.”
“I haven’t been on since the ’80s,” Fleck chimed in, “with New Grass Revival.”
They currently live in Nashville, but if they landed jobs on “Prairie Home Companion,” Washburn said, “We’d move to Minnesota.”
“It would be worth doing for that,” Fleck said.