Fifteen-time Grammy-winning banjo player Béla Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn are making their second appearance at the Savannah Music Festival as a duo to showcase their newest album, “Echo in The Valley.”
This year, the sound of this innovative folk and progressive bluegrass duo will fill the historic Lucas Theatre on March 31.
Contrary to their previous Grammy-winning, self-titled album, the latest record is comprised solely of original compositions, and includes no additional musicians.
They made it a point to compose an entire record that could be reproduced live in its entirety. The rules were: No overdubs, no guest musicians, and no tweaks that could potentially affect their sound once translated to a stage setting.
The enticing combination of shuffling percussive sounds, layered on top of Washburn’s claw-hammer picking and sultry, folky soprano voice with Fleck’s intricate finger picking compositions, could easily fool listeners into believing more than two artists were involved in the process.
Their use of more than seven different types of instruments helped them achieve a dynamic, diverse, yet cohesive album, but the complexity of their sound is largely due to the nature of the banjo itself.
As Fleck stated in an interview with WBUR 90.9, Boston’s NPR station, “The thing about banjos is a lot of times, you hear it, and you go, 'Wow, can one person possibly be doing that?’
“It's a lot of repeated notes, and a lot of times you have multiple voices happening inside.”
Fleck added that they are pleased by the idea of tricking the listener into believing there are more instruments involved. “With two banjos we can make a lot of sound, and there would be the temptation to listen to it and go, 'Oh there's probably some overdubs.’”
The album features the duo on ukulele banjo, an antique upright bass banjo, and a washboard for percussion, to name just a few of the instruments. Additionally, in songs like, “Take Me To Harlan,” listeners can hear Washburn leading rhythmically with foot tapping, while Fleck plays solos on the banjo.
According to Chris Griffy from AXS, “Belá Fleck has arguably done more to revolutionize the banjo than anyone since Earl Scruggs.”
Fleck is also known as part of his bands, Belá Fleck and the Flecktones and New Grass Revival. He has adapted the banjo to a wide variety of genres such as classical, jazz and rock. Fleck has been experimenting with this five-string instrument since his first years of playing, while attending Laguardia High School of Music & Art in New York City. There, Fleck attempted to adapt the banjo to bebop music.
Washburn, known for using the claw hammer technique on banjo, is also a well-known English and Chinese singer. She was the first East Asian Studies major at Colorado College. She became fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and dreamt of being a lawyer. After graduation, she even planned a trip to fulfill her lawyer dreams in China. But spending five days meditating at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts led her do ditch her previous career plans and pursue music full-time.
Shortly after that decision, Washburn was offered a record deal in Nashville, Tenn., where she met Fleck at a square-dancing fair where he was playing and she was dancing. The couple married in 2013 and released their first album as a duo in 2014. Their son was born in 2013, and the couple announced on Feb. 23 that they were expecting again in June of this year.