It was Abigail Washburn’s grandmother who set her up with Béla Fleck, musically if not romantically. The banjo-playing couple had been dating for a few years when the elder Washburn asked if the two would play at her church.
“We had never played a proper show together at that point, and we didn’t have much time to rehearse,” says Washburn. “So we just decided to get up there and see what happened.”
The duo learned they had as much chemistry together onstage as they did off.
“We played some solo stuff and the few things we knew together,” she recalls. “It felt really natural and easy. And we said to each other, we have to do more of this.”
So they did. It took nearly seven years, but this week, the duo released their first album together, simply titled Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. They recorded these dozen songs — including originals, traditional material and one or two new versions of older catalog tunes — at their home studio, putting it together piecemeal while they took care of their newborn son, Juno.
CMT Edge: You’ve been together for a decade and have performed together off and on for about seven years. Why did it take so long to record an album together?
Washburn: I didn’t feel ready, honestly, because of the business side of things — how things might be perceived. I felt like I had to establish myself more before I could play with Béla Fleck. That’s just the truth.
Fleck: We had a group together called the Sparrow Quartet. It was a fun project, but we ran into a lot of trouble because my career was much bigger than anyone else’s in the group. It was very complicated — just the fact that I was playing smaller places for less money. It created a difficult energy where everybody was coming at me. I think Abby got a little burned by that. She didn’t want people to say, “Why is she playing with him? Oh, they’re a couple. That’s why.” She wanted to establish herself without me.
Talk about the process for choosing these songs.
Washburn: A big part of it was, “What can we do with a new baby?” The experience of becoming new parents was overwhelming, and yet we had this goal of releasing a record in the first year of his life so that we could tour together. Juno was born, and we naively thought that we would have a lot of time to write, but that’s not how it works. So Béla and I did our best to create a few new things, and we looked at our repertoires and found some things that we already loved to sing but had never been recorded.
Fleck: We probably had seven or eight things ready to go just from all the touring we had done. There were some favorites of mine from Abby — like “Shotgun Blues” and “Ride to You” — that I knew she hadn’t recorded. As an experiment for the tour, I was teaching her “New South Africa,” but I ended up liking that version just as much as the version I did with the Flecktones. I originally did it on electric banjo, and it cast the song in a whole different light to do it with two banjos. Instead of an African tune, it became an old-time tune.
One of the most striking songs is the opener, “Railroad,” which is a pretty thorough reimagining of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Fleck: We had a lot of fun when we decided to do “Railroad.” We think of that song as a work song, but I don’t know if it really was. It’s an old song with a lot of different versions. We read up on the history on the song and all the different versions of it that have existed, and it led us to write our own last verse that incorporates some of the things we had discovered.
Washburn: We found versions from the civil rights era and the black minstrel period. In particular, there was one version where the singer said that one day they were going to own the railroad and everyone was going to ride for free. We liked that sense of liberation.
Fleck: Part of the fun of this record is that it has a lot of different sounds and moods, but it’s really only two people. We relied on using a variety of instruments — all banjos. Cello banjo, a ukulele banjo, a fretless banjo. We would try to find a combination with each song that painted a picture. That was a big part of the aesthetic. One of my favorite albums is called Skaggs and Rice, which is Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice doing duets. It’s so spare and beautiful. I don’t think our album sounds like that, but it was an inspiration for how cool a duet album can be.
There seem to be some really dark aspects to the album, a lot of songs that deal with death, like the murder ballad “Pretty Polly.”
Fleck: It’s not what you expect to hear from two people who just had their first baby. But it just happened, and we rolled with it. I don’t think it’s a negative record. There is some dark material, but hopefully it has an uplifting quality in the way we play it or in the energy of it.
Washburn: Babies bring up a lot of stuff. For the first time in my life, I feel responsible for this little person to live and thrive. That brings up death a lot. I don’t want him to die. I want to make sure he does really well. The birth of a beautiful baby into your world can bring up death quite a bit.
Fleck: Around the time Juno came in to the world, a couple of really important people went out — my stepfather Joe and Abby’s grandmother June, who our baby Juno is named after. It’s just part of what’s going on — life and death.
Washburn: The big cycle. The big everything.