Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn Share Stories with Their Banjos


Léna García

World-renowned banjo masters, husband and wife Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, came to University of California, Santa Barbara on Wednesday, May 7, for an evening hosted by Arts & Lectures. They played their first duo performance in Santa Barbara to an excited audience of banjo-lovers of all ages.

When I stepped into Campbell Hall, it was with limited knowledge of the banjo. I felt both underdressed and intimidated to be writing about Fleck, the world’s most talented banjo musician. Fleck is a 15-time Grammy Award winner and nominee for 30 other awards in the bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock, and world beat genres.

Despite my initial fear, I was struck by the mythical nature of the banjo as a narrative instrument, one that belongs to travelers and storytellers like Fleck and Washburn. Especially through Fleck’s performance, I learned that American Bluegrass is a storytelling genre and the banjo its voice.

Fleck’s razor-sharp cadences filled the theater with the idyllic harp-like sounds of his banjo, while Washburn jammed along on the banjo and cello-banjo. His mastery of the instrument allowed him to sculpt its sound into the wispy goldenness of a harp or the folksy layers of Spanish guitar.

The journey continued with movement as the duo played “City of Refuge,” an American bluegrass song Washburn released in 2011 in collaboration with indie musician Kai Welch. Washburn’s voice filled the theater–uncensored, raw, and timeless–singing, “Eden’s on the far side where the circle started / To run with Gods you gotta run harder.”

As an audience member, it felt like we were gathered around a campfire in Nashville with the night sky as our only ceiling. The evening was my first taste of the banjo performed live, and it was a rich experience and sound.

In Fleck’s heartfelt piece for Juno, the couple’s 11-month-old son, his banjo became imbued with joyful wishes for their son, and he conveyed the hopeful uncertainty of raising a child. At times he picked his instrument tenderly and softly, like a Monarch butterfly gently beating its wings.

Despite Fleck’s unparalleled career as an artist—over the years he’s collaborated with countless musicians including bassist Edgar Meyer in the 2001 Sony Classical album, “Perpetual Motion”—he performed with extreme humility and as though he were among old friends.

Mid-performance, Washburn said, “A lot of the music we love was recorded on porches with wax recorders.” So both musicians unplugged their instruments and joined the audience on a more intimate level, standing close to the front row.

With humor, Fleck and Washburn shared the experience of taking a year off after Juno’s birth with the expectation of having time to write new music but in reality having absolutely no time. They joked that this is why some of the songs in their set-list were lyric-less.

Throughout the evening, Fleck picked with the speed and precision: at times with sorrow and the lullaby quality of folk, and at others, with the majesty of the banjo concerto he wrote on commission for the 2011 Nashville Symphony.

At Fleck and Washburn’s request, all proceeds from the concert will go to Community Action Stops Abuse of Santa Barbara County. CASA is an organization dedicated to preventing abused children from falling through the cracks of the Juvenile Dependency system, as well as matching these children with a safe home.