Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck have thriving musical careers that have spanned the globe, from the hills of the Sichuan Provence in China to the flood plains of The Gambia. And now they have Juno, their baby boy born last year.
As one-half of the adventurous ensemble The Sparrow Quartet, Fleck and Washburn reimagined chamber music with a folk personality. Individually, they’ve taken on old-time, Chinese traditional music, bluegrass, indie, jazz and avant-folk. Now as a duo, they present what may be their most pure, careful balance of their strengths yet through a set of traditional and original tunes. They offered a soft launch of this format in a Raleigh hotel room late last year.
Ahead of their show tonight at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, we spoke with Washburn about the family band and all the new music on the horizon.
INDY: Last time you were in Chapel Hill, Juno wasn’t born. What’s life like now with a son?
It is just totally different. He is so amazing. Every morning I wake up, and it’s my birthday all over again, or Christmas morning. He’s making all these googly sounds, and he’s so freaking cute. I mean, I have to change a lot of diapers, and he cries, but it’s just a dream. It’s so amazing to be a steward of a life, to see this little life unfolding and growing and becoming bigger.
It takes over everything; at least for me, it’s taken over. It’s my first priority before anything else. I’m just fiercely committed to making sure he’s got a good shot at being healthy and happy.
Did those new priorities influence your choice to play together more often and to tour?
For both Béla and I, we’ve been waiting for the right time to do this duo thing. We weren’t sure how good an idea it would be in the beginning. I mean, just two banjos and me singing—how that would work? We had a few opportunities to do fundraisers and little things like that. One for my grandma’s church was the first time we ever played together. We sat down and rehearsed for about an hour and then got up on the stage. It was just so easy, so enjoyable. The audience seemed to love it, and our chemistry on stage was really fun. We came off the stage and said, “Wow, we should do this more.”
It really didn’t seem right until now for a couple of reasons. Obviously, Béla has had this incredibly established, wonderful career for many decades that he’s been building. I’m newer. This is my 10th year, and I didn’t have and I still don’t have quite the following, so the business of the two of us touring can be a little complicated in terms of who has the draw. Luckily, promoters do want to see Béla and I together. They’ve decided that this is a good idea. That’s the wonderful discovery: People do want to see us together.
On a personal level, the fact that I can travel with my husband and baby and play music is pretty extraordinary. I’m just so fortunate the stars have aligned at this point, and Béla and I have worked hard and gotten it to a place where we could actually do this once our little baby came along. There are a lot of pressures in going on tour with a little baby and with Béla and I, the balance of our relationship now that we’re working together and parenting together for the first time. There are all kinds of new things to incorporate into our lives, but we married each other because we’re game. We’re in for it, and we’re excited to take on these new realms of life. [jump]
Tell me more about the business aspect of this duo.
It is interesting. When I’m doing things on my own, it’s sort of like I’m only affecting my own career and I can take chances and play with people that I want. Béla gets to do that, too, but it’s a little bit of a chance he’s taking deciding to mix it all up and make it a family affair. We both are, but it’s something that seems to be working out really well, which we couldn’t have predicted. That’s a really amazing outcome that’s going to make it something we can do for a really long time.
You’ve played together before. He joined your band for certain shows and then as members of The Sparrow Quarter, but those are always with a few other musicians on board. How is it collaborating with just Béla?
He’s just an incredibly flexible and virtuosic musician. Any limitations I have he can make up for a hundredfold. It’s pretty exciting because the music is really full spectrum as it goes from these really quiet, thoughtful Appalachian songs that I bring to the table to tunes where we’re just grooving and cruising and Béla’s soloing his face off. It really spans that whole realm, from this extreme virtuosity to this very soulful, simple approach.
We’re working on an album right now between tours, and we decided for a lot of it to be based in tradition. I’d say two-thirds of the record is probably going to be some combination of murder ballads and Carter Family songs and old bluegrass numbers and things that maybe he and I have been performing for a long time but never found the right way or the right situation to record. We are writing original stuff together, too. I think we’re going to be able to debut something at Chapel Hill.
It’s a lot to ask of a couple to do business, perform on stage, have a baby for the first time, write creatively together and go through the process of what it takes to really make a good record. It’s a heavy-duty commitment, but I think we’re faring pretty well.
Do you have any favorite duos?
I’ve always loved Gil and Dave. Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs are incredible. Most of the duos that I’m familiar with are people that sing. A huge part of it is the singing together. Béla actually does a little bit of harmonizing on some of the songs. That’s not the main focus of what we do. We can learn from those other duos, but what Béla brings to the table—what both of us bring to the table in this collaboration—it has to have a different brain.