Banjo hero Bela Fleck has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to the often misunderstood stringed instrument that's now become a practical necessity to forming an indie hipster band.
You see, in the 1970s and even into the 1980s, Fleck was a country guy. As a member of the New Grass Revival, Fleck flirted with mainstream country success with bandmates such as Sam Bush and John Cowan, two artists who are also now rootsy all-stars in their own right. As the 1990s rolled in, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones seemed to noodle their way into the jam-band world's graces. Such inclusion was thanks to their piano- and harmonica-intensive instrumental jams, which blended a wealth of world music influences with an ability to keep a groove going as long as any other act on the road.
It didn't hurt that Fleck became the go-to banjo expert for the Dave Matthews Band at their commercial zenith, either.
After the Flecktones went into different directions, the new millennium would witness Fleck really spreading his musical wings globally. Fleck's love of the banjo and roots music from nations other than America led to the creation of the widely acclaimed Throw Down Your Heart Africa sessions series, which netted Fleck a Grammy and even more affirmation that he's simply one of the world's true visionaries.
These days, he's giving things another go with a fully reunited Flecktones. Their new album, Rocket Science, is a fine example of a truly collaborative band that is supremely confident in its abilities.
With Bela Fleck and the Flecktones playing at the AT&T Performing Arts Center tomorrow night, we jumped at the chance to share some time with the man that has certainly made the banjo more relevant today than perhaps any Avett or Mumford has.
A few years ago, it seemingly wasn't advantageous for all of the original Flecktones to continue on as a unit. Now, you're all back together. Is that just the crazy way that life and art revolves around each other?
It sure is. It's like a parallel world sometimes, in which Howard [Levy] never left the band!
Was it important to you to have a new album with the Flecktones to tour behind?
Yes, very much so. We're not supposed to be an oldies band that plays music from the past. We always should be pushing forward. It's our mandate as a group and separately.
The new album seems to be a sonically varied, yet still very cohesive. That's not something that many can pull off. Is the various members' love for music from all over the globe key to making that happen?
I think it always helps continuity when it's the same four people playing very diverse music. Then you can follow each person through the whole recording. And everyone's varied musical interests do make for a very rich concoction.
This is going back a few years: In an interview that Dave Matthews gave during the release of Before These Crowded Streets, he mentioned that your banjo work on "Don't Drink the Water" was so impressive in part because it's really tough to do a slow banjo solo. Does that ring a bell? For us non-banjo players, why is that a tough thing?
It is much easier to play mid tempos and fast tempos on the banjo. Because we are using our fingers to pluck each note, it takes some serious zen action to keep from rushing at the slow tempos. John Hartford was really great at it, and helped me to realize what a hip sound it could be, when really in the groove.
Speaking of the banjo: In the last few years, there's been a younger generation of bands coming along, featuring the banjo prominently and enjoying mainstream success. Even though the banjo has been a staple of music from all over the world for so long, it seems to be "hipper" than ever now. Do you notice that? Or am I totally off-base here?
Yes, people are much less dismissive of the banjo, and even curious and excited by it nowadays. There used to be a lot of prejudice against the banjo because of stereotypes encouraged by Hee Haw, Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies. Lots of great music continues to emanate from the Southern rural part of the banjo's story, but now it is balanced by many different points of view.
Your Throw Down Your Heart project was not only artistically ambitious, but financially so, as you reportedly didn't have label backing. Why was it so important to you to continue on with it for a second album?
I hated the idea of this great music never coming out. And I had so much music that didn't make the first album. That meant that some of these great musicians might never be heard, so I decided to put the second one out on my own. And it won a Grammy, as well as the first one. I guess now I am a contemporary world music artist!