Bluegrass is back for Béla Fleck
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Banjo master Bayla brings his bluegras band to the Balboa theater tomorrow. Following the release of a brand new album, he returns to his bluegras roots with my bluegras heart. The album brings home a decades long trilogy of his bluegrass work beginning with 1988 drive and 1990 nines. The blue sessions, the new album opens with the dizzying track vertigo, Grammy award winner, Bayla flex spoke with K P S arts editor, Julia Dixon, Evans about his new album, his tour, and more here's that interview.
Speaker 2: (00:51)
Let's start with the reality of being on tour right now in the middle of a pandemic after a long break from live performances. What do these performances mean to you? Oh,
Speaker 3: (01:05)
It's a sheer joy. I mean, it's a complicated thing cuz it's the most fun I've had in a long time, but I also am feel guilty leaving my, uh, advocate, my wife home with two kids. And of course our nanny situation disintegrated right before I left on tour and she's just really being a soldier. So part of me really bummed out about that and the rest of it is just having the best time I've ever had
Speaker 2: (01:26)
And it's also been a long time since you've gone on a strictly bluegrass tour and bluegrass is a particularly communal feeling type of music. What has it been like to go back to performing bluegrass?
Speaker 3: (01:40)
It's just a gas. Um, it's a very much of a team sport. You know, you, you share the ball together, you carry it together. And when there's six really talented guys on stage or poor ladies, you know, you have to find your place in it. And it, and it's very much of a dance too. It's not like you just start playing and you play the same way all the way through something. You play differently behind each instrument, each combination of instruments. When some, when the fi is leading, you play a certain way and the mandoline is leading. You know, when, when we do vocal songs, uh, there's all of these, I don't know how to put it except there's different setups of the way we all play together. And a great bluegras song travels through all of these different scenarios, you know, in the matter of three or four minutes. And so it's quite complex and a lot of it is unconscious with the people that have done it for the whole lives. You just automatically switch into these different gears, but I think it's a beautiful thing to watch just like watching a great basketball team on the floor. You know,
Speaker 2: (02:29)
I love that the basketball analogy and I want to talk to you about this new album. It was released in September called my bluegrass heart. Can you tell me a little bit about the completion of, of what's no. As a trilogy that you began in the late 1980s and what drew you back in? Well, I,
Speaker 3: (02:50)
I think of as, as a, as a trilogy, because the first time I got to record my own music with Tony rice and Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas Stewart Duncan was the, the drive album in 1988. And it captured kind of a moment for everybody. Everybody was kind of peeking at a certain point in their career. Um, everyone was stretching, finding new ways to play bluegrass. And somehow a lot of it coalesced on this record. It was a place you would hear all these people doing that together. And I was the fortunate beneficiary cuz it happened to me, my record of my tunes. That was focal point. So it became at the time it came out, it, it, it did. Okay. But as years went by, people started to regard it as like a, a special record of the, a, a special recording of those people at that time, a position statement for the music even for, for that time.
Speaker 3: (03:32)
So we did it again in 1999 with those folks and we had some of the old guys join us like Earl Scruggs and John for and bass Clements, all who've passed away now. And, and, and we had the same band, but, um, you know, again, after I'd been in the flex tones for 10 years, I had a whole different idea of what bluegrass could be. And in other words, I'd been playing jazz and, and world music and classical music and all these different things. And I thought there was room for a little bit more of it in the bluegras with, without it not being bluegrass. And so here I am 20 years after that and I've had a lot longer to think about it. And I've also really missed that groove, that thing that's so central to, you know, as a banjo player bluegras is gonna be your center.
Speaker 3: (04:11)
Even if I'm, if you're a New York Yankee banjo player like me, it's become clear to me that that's the thing that is maybe the most central, uh, to my music of identity. Even though I like to think of myself as a modernist and, you know, uh, working with people outside of, uh, of, of the form for most of the last 30 years, it's very central. So, so this is the homecoming in some ways it's, it's, uh, also a way to get to know a lot of the new faces that have come along in that last 20 years that have have ripened, you know, the Sierra halls and come Chris thees and Billy strings, uh, Billy Contrera, all these people that I didn't even know about that, uh, have now become the current crop of, uh, very special people bringing new new ideas to the music. So the album is a combination. I've got the old, old folks, my old pals, like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, who I'm coming, coming to, uh, coming to you guys with and David Grisman, but then, you know, some very young folks too. It's nice. And
Speaker 2: (05:03)
You mentioned him earlier, a couple of the songs feature on the album, a couple of the songs feature San Diego's own Chris thi uh, let's play Psalm 1 36, which, which features him on mandolin.
Speaker 3: (05:32)
I have to say what a, what a God, Chris steely has turned out to be as a musician. And he grew up basically listening to this cast of guys that are coming to San Diego play. These were his, you know, his, the guys that he emulated and now he's kind of just, you know, showing us all his butt and shaking it. saying, look at me now. He just keeps on moving and moving and going to the next level. And it's just been a joy to play with him and have that relationship with him.
Speaker 2: (05:57)
I also want to have a listen to Strider from my bluegrass heart. I love how I'm assuming that song is, but it has so much momentum and that feels like the entire album too. Can you talk to me about how you put this album together and the kind of story you wanted it to tell?
Speaker 3: (06:30)
Uh, I wish I could claim to have had a master plan, um, but it was much more loose, loose than that and at first I was just thinking, well, I can't get Tony rice cuz he wasn't playing anymore. This was before he had passed away. And so I was disappointed about that. So I had decided I was not gonna use the guys I recorded drive and, and uh, bluegrass sessions with back in, in the eighties and, and nineties and I was gonna do something new with some young players. So I started recording some old tunes. I had laying around with a new cast of people and I, I recorded like five songs and then I went through this sort of fire's remorse. I loved it. I thought it was great what they did by the way. But then I thought, well, why am I not recording with Sam and Jerry just cuz I can't get Tony.
Speaker 3: (07:11)
Why am I not recording with my guys that I grew up, you know, together with playing that are my peer group. So then I started and with them and then I had two bands with different tracks and I was like, well, if I've got two bands, why am I not asking Chris Steele to play? And then, well, if I'm asking Chris, what can I do? That would be interesting. Oh, well I just met Billy strings. Well they've never played together. You know? And then David Chrisman is passing through town like, well maybe he'll come over and do a track. And pretty soon it was like maybe my band or teacher would come down and no county would come in and we would do a triple ban number and it just started to go and roll. And at a certain point it became clear that it was a community record and not a band record cuz typically my albums are almost always a band record, same personnel on all the songs.
Speaker 3: (07:54)
And I've always felt that that provided continuity as diverse as the music can sometimes be on my projects. You know, there's a lot of different kinds of things on one record, but if it's the same people, it kind of ties it together. In this case, I just let that go. And it's the instrumentation that ties it together and the camaraderie, um, between all these people, everybody just really wanted to be there. And um, the guitarists all were very conscious of filling Tony Rice's seat and wanting to bring something new to it. It and respect everything he had done in the past. And um, yeah, it was just a joy
Speaker 2: (08:25)
And you're performing at the restored Balboa theater downtown Thursday night. Is there anything you can tell us about what audiences can expect to hear?
Speaker 3: (08:35)
Yeah, I actually, I, I, maybe I should because this album, you know, some of it's very heady, some of it's very visceral, some of it's, you know, uh, whatever you wanna say, but it's all instrumental on the record, but on the live show, this band, um, you know, we, it's kind of the, the record is an excuse to bring this a team together. So we're not just doing the record. We're doing quite a bit of the complex pieces from the record and highly orchestrated instrumental music, but we're also hitting some standard bluegrass stuff. So it's not just gonna be heavy, instrumental stuff. It's, it's a bit of a party and everybody's having the time of their lives and there's a lot of silliness and um, some of the best musicianship on the planet, uh, it just happens. Say, these guys are blowing my mind every day and making this music swing, um, bluegras can swing even at these ridiculous tempos that we sometimes get to. And um, just a wonderful time. Everybody's been really happy. The audiences have been going crazy for it. And we're just having a time of our lives. That
Speaker 1: (09:31)
Was Grammy winner Bayla flex speaking with KPBS arts editor, Julia Dixon, Evans Bayla Fleck will perform at the be boa theater at eight tonight.
Speaker 4: (10:10)
The, the, the, the, the, the, I.
Béla Fleck is one of the world's best-known banjo players and has the Grammys to prove it — 15 of them by his count. Fleck will bring a crew of longtime, esteemed bluegrass collaborators to the Balboa Theatre in San Diego on Thursday, on the heels of a brand new album.
In September, he released "My Bluegrass Heart," which brings home a decades-long trilogy of his bluegrass work — beginning with 1988's "Drive," and 1999's "The Bluegrass Sessions."
The new album opens with the mesmerizing "Vertigo," a spiraling, rapid-paced track that feels like a figurative bursting into a room, a triumphant re-entry.
The first time Fleck picked up a banjo was after he heard Earl Scruggs play. The tune? The "Beverly Hillbillies" theme. "Everybody laughs at that because it's a silly show, but that banjo playing is not silly," Fleck said.
Scruggs popularized a specific, three-finger style of banjo playing that Fleck still finds captivating. "If someone starts talking to me while I listen to Earl Scruggs playing, I'm like, 'Listen, can we just hold your thought 'til that banjo stops?'"
'A team sport'
The album — and the tour — is a return to Fleck's bluegrass roots, as well as his longtime collaborators. It's a style that's highly communal.
"It's very much a team sport. So you share the ball together, you carry it together," Fleck said. "It's very much of a dance, too. It's not like you just start playing and you play the same way all the way through something. You play differently behind each instrument, each combination of instruments."
In bluegrass, Fleck said that each leading instrument is like a scene change, and the rotations structure the tune's overall sound.
"A great bluegrass song travels through all of these different scenarios in the matter of three or four minutes," Fleck said. "A lot of it is unconscious with the people that have done it for their whole life. You just automatically switch into these different gears. But I think it's a beautiful thing to watch, just like watching a great basketball team on the floor."
Many of the musicians Fleck collaborated with on this album are people who have in fact "done it for their whole life," and have worked with Fleck for decades, including on the first two trilogy albums: dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Sam Bush, bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddle player Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton.
An evolving style
Each of the albums on the trilogy builds on his ever-changing experience with bluegrass. By the time the second album in 1999 rolled around, he'd been performing as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones for years, which significantly shaped his style.
"I had a whole different idea of what bluegrass could be. In other words, I'd been playing jazz and world music and classical music and all these different things, and I thought there was room for a little bit more of it in the bluegrass, without it not being bluegrass," Fleck said. "And so here I am, 20 years after that, I've had a lot longer to think about it. I've also really missed that groove, that thing that's so central — as a banjo player, bluegrass is going to be your center."
For "My Bluegrass Heart," which was recorded before the pandemic, Fleck wanted to get to know some of the even newer players in the bluegrass world to keep the trilogy's evolution going.
New perspectives from younger players
The recent death of former collaborator Tony Rice meant that he couldn't rebuild the same exact band as on the prior albums, so he began recording songs for the album with younger musicians and new voices, like Sierra Hull, Billy Strings and Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers).
Thile, an Oceanside native, performs on several songs on "My Bluegrass Heart," including the album's closer, the curious, lilting "Psalm 136."
"I have to say what a god Chris Thile has turned out to be as a musician," Fleck said. Though Thile is not on the list of performers for the San Diego show, Thile grew up listening to all of the other musicians in the show. "He just keeps on moving and moving and going to the next level, and it's just been a joy to play with him and have that relationship with him."
And while he loved the freshness the younger players brought to each song, he realized he still wanted to return to the players from the original album, even without Rice. So he added more songs.
'A community record'
Generally on an album, Fleck said he likes to use a consistent band in each song to tie an album together, especially with music that is inherently diverse. On "My Bluegrass Heart," it's something entirely different that forms the glue.
"At a certain point, it became clear that it was a community record and not a band record," Fleck said.
It's an intense album, focused and heady — and entirely instrumental. Patches of quietness and contemplation coexist with and meld into rowdier tunes.
"Strider," featuring Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle, is a more unassuming track, but it's still packed with a certain momentum — an apt summary for the album, and maybe even the humble genre as a whole.
Fleck dedicated the album to guitarist Tony Rice (1951-2020) and pianist Chick Corea (1941-2021), two close friends and collaborators.
A pandemic detour
During the early days of the pandemic, Fleck dove into the editing and mixing process for the album. The project provided him with a creative outlet — as well as his community.
"What was cool about it is when we're stuck in our house for all this time, I could just go down into my studio and work on this music. It was like I was in the room with Chris, and I was in the room with Sam and Jerry and David Grisman and Billy Strings. It was like they were all in my house, coming through the speakers," Fleck said.
One thing he didn't count on: the physicality of actually playing the banjo regularly.
"Banjos are heavy. If you haven't played the banjo standing up for two years, all of a sudden your back spasms when you stand up there for three or four nights in a row for two and a half hours and sound check another hour and a half each day," Fleck said. "I'm 63 now. I've been at an age where if I don't use it, I'm going to lose it."
For this show, he'll include pieces from the new album alongside bluegrass standards. And while he's feeling the strain of being away from his family — his wife, singer/songwriter and banjo player Abigail Washburn, and their children — he's happy to get back to that "team sport."
"It's a bit of a party. These guys are blowing my mind every day and making this music swing. Bluegrass can swing," Fleck added. "Even at these ridiculous tempos that we sometimes get to."
Béla Fleck performs at the Balboa Theatre Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 at 8 p.m.
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