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Bluegrass Gathers, With Béla Fleck Back Home, On The String

Bela Fleck, 2021.
Bela Fleck, 2021.

Hot on the heels of the four-day roots music rush that was AmericanaFest 2021 last week in Nashville, the IBMA World of Bluegrass fires up its banjos and fiddles this week in Raleigh, NC for its first in-person industry convention and festival since the fall of 2019. One of its most anticipated shows is a two-hour Friday-night set at the Red Hat Amphitheater billed as Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart, marking a cross-generational return to the family fold by one of the music’s most influential masters.

Fleck’s Friday night show will feature musicians he’s known for decades - guitarist Bryan Sutton and bass player Mark Schatz - alongside some of the most distinguished younger players in the genre. Rounding out this band will be IBMA Award-winning superstars Sierra Hull (mandolin), Michael Cleveland (fiddle) and Justin Moses (dobro and more). Those players also contribute dramatic and high-level playing on Fleck’s new album My Bluegrass Heart, but so do many others. Here in an epic, 19-track instrumental masterwork, Fleck’s compositions are elevated by his old cadre (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer) with the most important young pickers working, including guitarists Billy Strings, Cody Kilby and Molly Tuttle, mandolinists Chris Thile and Dominic Leslie, fiddler Michael Cleveland and bass player Paul Kowert. Also here are banjo greats Tony Trischka (Béla’s first teacher) and Noam Pikelny (briefly his student), as well as mandolin newgrass pioneer David Grisman.

The personnel are worth close scrutiny because this is players’ music, a sophisticated and demanding interpretation of bluegrass that is really more like jazz in its ensemble execution and its individual improvisation. It’s a vein of important American music that Béla Fleck didn’t create by himself, but with his technical command and prolific output of new tunes going back to the 1980s, the 63-year-old has left a peerless mark on modern bluegrass.

The quick version of the story is that Fleck was captivated by the sound of the banjo as a pre-teen in New York City when he heard Earl Scruggs play the theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies, a TV influence moment for banjo players a bit like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was for songwriting rockers. After studying the instrument with Trischka, he moved to Boston and joined Tasty Licks, followed by a move south to be near master banjo player J.D. Crowe. Then it was a decade with New Grass Revival and a series of solo albums on the side, a stretch when Fleck’s exotic and expansive virtuoso style really flowered.

For all the eclectic albums he recorded under his own name and as a band member with others, his core bluegrass canon is said to have started with the acclaimed and influential Drive in 1987. Then in 1999, long after founding his jazz fusion group The Flecktones and launching some classical and world music collaborations, he wrote and produced The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet Volume 2 in 1999, again with the core band of Bush, Douglas, Duncan and iconic guitarist Tony Rice. Thus My Bluegrass Heart is being seen as the completion of a slow-gestating trilogy.

Fleck says he was “in no hurry” to return to bluegrass, while he composed concertos for banjo and orchestra and recorded and toured with his hero the jazz pianist Chick Corea in the 2010s. But several events sparked an urgency to bring to life a pile of pieces he’d written with the abundance of players on the scene. “There’s that joy of returning to something that is at the center of who I am and what I do and embracing that center. Because for a long time, I've tried so hard to not do bluegrass, because it was the obvious thing,” he says. “And it's kind of like cutting off your nose to spite your face or throwing the baby out with the bathwater or whatever you want to use. But you know, it didn't fit my mission of expanding the view of the banjo and looking for things that were creatively super challenging for me so I would become a better musician.”

Eventually, he saw a chance to return to his role as leader and auteur. “Because I do all of these collaborations, and in a collaboration, you only get to bring a certain amount of tunes, and you only have a certain amount of influence. It's about bending to each other, which is great. So I had a lot of tunes that maybe didn't fit a bluegrass context that well, but by gosh I really wanted to hear these tunes played.”

So in a series of sessions before and during the pandemic, a group of groups took shape, and it’s remarkable to sit through the album like a concert with the liner notes at hand, thinking about the unique voices of the musicians on each track. Bluegrass was born from the blues, hot jazz and Anglo-Celtic fiddle tunes. Its transcendence to the highest realms of instrumental improvised music has been one of the less-told stories of the 20th century. But Béla’s done more to get it there than anyone, and this may be the ultimate expression (so far) of that journey.

A mix of My Bluegrass Heart bands will tour the nation through this winter, including a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium in January with as close to the entire cast of album players as possible.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org