Bela Fleck and wife Abigail Washburn duo in music and life

Bela Fleck, right, and wife Abigail Washburn will perform in Carmel Oct. 23. (Submitted photo)
Bela Fleck, right, and wife Abigail Washburn will perform in Carmel Oct. 23. (Submitted photo)

Commentary by Jay Harvey

Banjo icon Bela Fleck and his wife and duo partner, Abigail Washburn, claim musical roots from different plots in the American musical garden. The harvest, however, is a crop that’s flourishing and wholly their own, as the audience at their Oct. 23 Palladium is sure to recognize.

For Washburn, a lawyer by background trained in Beijing, China, it was the legendary singer-guitarist Doc Watson, who represented to her something she’d long sought: “the beauty of authentic American culture.” For Fleck, a musician longer before the public (with the New Grass Revival and his own band, the Flecktones), it was the equally legendary Earl Scruggs, a bluegrass pioneer on banjo alongside guitarist Lester Flatt.

Those musical heroes aren’t acres apart on the landscape.  So, despite their different career paths before they started working and touring together, Fleck and Washburn easily found common ground. Washburn’s equal focus on singing adds variety to the duo, as does Fleck’s broad assimilation of many genres into his command of the banjo.

The couple travels with their 17-month-old son, Juno, when they aren’t at home in Nashville, Tenn., where they have a studio on premises. Their first CD, titled simply “Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn,” issued nearly a year ago, was made there.

“I come from a broken home,” Fleck has said, “and I have a lot of musician friends who missed their kids’ childhoods because they were touring … I don’t want to be somebody that Juno sees only once in a while. We need to be together, and this is a way we can be together a whole lot more.”

Their backgrounds took them far afield separately. Washburn’s interest in finding paths “for good action” at first had her focused in nonmusical directions. Studying law in China and becoming fluent in Mandarin put music as a sideline, but always an active one that bore fruit years later after Fleck became enchanted with one of her recordings. The couple married in 2010.

For Fleck, a 15-time Grammy winner, from childhood “the banjo became the most important thing in my life,” he told Krista Tippett in an “On Being” radio interview with the couple earlier this year. “The banjo is where I put my energy, but I’m learning as much about life now from having a child with Abby.”

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