Béla Fleck says the first time he heard someone playing banjo it was “like sparks going off in my head.”
Fleck heard Earl Scruggs playing the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV theme and, though he was a New York kid, he wanted to learn to play.
Learn he did, and he’ll be playing and showing what he learned in a solo banjo performance Feb. 14 at the Hargray Capitol Theatre.
But an evening of solo banjo? Is that the norm?
No, it’s not. But Fleck went beyond the norm decades ago so don’t expect the evening’s fare to be all bluegrass or roots tunes. According to Fleck, there will likely be a touch of bluegrass and roots but also a lot of jazz, classical music, African, Dixieland and “some very old banjo music” — to name a few possibilities.
“I’ll bring a pile of banjos to get the sound I want,” Fleck said in a phone interview. “I’ll cover a lot of things, maybe some Beatles tunes, even, and some things that are hard to define. There’ll be a lot of variety. I like to display the beauty of the banjo.”
When reminded the concert is Valentine’s Day evening, he added more possibilities. “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that,” he said. “What could be sweeter? Maybe I’ll learn ‘Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet’ or do a romance medley. I don’t know. No promises, but maybe.”
It also reminded Fleck he should do something nice for his wife, Abigail Washburn, since he’ll be away for the day on Valentine’s. Washburn is a fellow banjo player who often tours with Fleck but plays a more traditional, roots style claw-hammer or frailing technique than Fleck’s three-finger fingerpicked style invented by Scruggs and common to bluegrass.
While constant touring has been a Fleck mainstay from his early days in the progressive bluegrass supergroup New Grass Revival, touring solo is relatively new — brought on by Fleck, now 60, becoming a family man and not wanting to be away from home as much. “Touring used to be nonstop but I don’t want to be an absentee parent,” he said. “Abigail and I started touring together and that’s great, we still do, but with the birth of our second child, she wants to be home more. I do too, but I also need to play. The solo thing has been perfect.”
In part, Macon’s concert is fruit of Fleck seeking solo shows one day away from his Nashville home.
But slowing touring hasn’t meant ending the group and collaborative tours Fleck is famous for. There are a half dozen active tour combinations on his website including his gigs, duos with Washburn, ones with Fleck’s most famous group, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and tours with musicians such as jazz great Chick Corea, classical composer and bassist Edgar Meyer and a slew of Indian, African and other noted world musicians. Later this year, there will be a concert at the Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado celebrating 30 years of the Flecktones including numerous guests from Fleck’s touring and recording roster.
Add to that one-off symphonic presentations of his classical repertoire, including his own compositions, and you know the 15-time Grammy Award winner who’s been nominated in more categories than any other instrumental artist is nowhere near done. And as for recording, Fleck said he’s at work on a project with friends and partners old and new — “some of my favorite peers” — for what amounts to a reprise of his famous “Drive” album and the collaborative “Bluegrass Sessions” recordings.
So with the years of learning, touring, playing and just plain work, are the sparks still there when he hears good banjo music?
“I listen to a lot of people, a lot of banjo, and the love is there,” he said. “And yeah, when I hear Scruggs the sparks are still there. There’s something about his technique and rhythm. I see music as a moving target and you’re never done. I want to play my best for every show. I’m a hard worker with a genuine curiosity about music. I’ve also always been a bit shy and one thing the solo shows have done is get me talking. I’m not saying I’m a great storyteller, but I have some stories and they’ve become part of me out there alone.”
Out there alone — with his banjo.
Contact Michael W. Pannell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“An Evening with Béla Fleck”
Where: Hargray Capitol Theatre, 382 Second St., Macon