“The king and queen of the banjo” (Paste Magazine), Béla Fleck is a fifteen-time Grammy Award winner who has taken the instrument across multiple genres, and Abigail Washburn a singer-songwriter and clawhammer banjo player who re-radicalized it by combining it with Far East culture and sounds. They are touring off their newest record, Echo in the Valley.
Echo in the Valley is the follow up to Béla and Abigail’s acclaimed, self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album. This time around, the mission was to take their double banjo combination of three finger and clawhammer styles “to the next level and find things to do together that we had not done before,” says Béla. “We’re expressing different emotions through past techniques and going to deeper places.” The results are fascinating, especially considering their strict rules for recording: all sounds must be created by the two of them, the only instruments used are banjos (they have seven between them, ranging from a ukulele to an upright bass banjo), and they must be able to perform every recorded song live.
Fleck and Washburn met at a square dance and began playing music together a dozen years ago, beginning with the Sparrow Quartet. They married shortly thereafter and became parents to a cute little tot. They’ve been touring the globe as a duo for years, almost nonstop but for each other’s performances with various other musical iterations: Béla with the likes of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Chick Corea and Chris Thile, among many others, and Abigail with Wu Fei (a master of the ancient 21-string Chinese zither), The Wu-Force and Uncle Earl.
Béla and Abigail’s creative process on Echo in the Valley is sonically made manifest in the record’s major themes of harmony, empathy and surrender. As Abigail explains, the intense, intimate collaboration that Fleck and Washburn put forward on this project required “a spirit of staying strong, but also a willingness to release into the other’s ideas to create something new,” possibly something bigger and more beautiful than one could do on one’s own.