After a year of touring together, husband and wife team Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn decided to record their first musical collaboration. The resulting album, simply titled Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, is a stripped-down collection of the finest gifts each performer brings to the banjo.
Fleck is known for his smooth picking, his virtuoso soloing, and complex song structures, whereas Washburn is associated with a simplistic yet emotional style that befits her claw-hammer playing. Together, the duo produces twangy harmonies that are at times heavy on style while resonating in a strong visceral level. Aside from sparse percussion, there are no instruments on the album but banjo and vocals. It’s a front-porch record that showcases bare-bones Americana presented on plucked banjo strings.
A gritty version of folk standard “Railroad” begins the album on an upbeat note, Washburn’s raspy voice echoing the blue-collar theme while Fleck’s frantic licks give the song an uneasy quality. Fleck and Washburn break out their bag of banjo tricks a few times, such as the dueling banjo lines in instrumentals “New South Africa” and “For Children.”
But for all the smoking banjo leads, the album isn’t about showing off technical prowess. The album’s finest moments are its most soulful, such as the a cappella intro to “And Am I Born To Die,” Washburn’s ethereal voice floating through the emptiness. Eerie, misplaced plucked strings punctuate the revenge ballad “Shotgun Blues.” The morosely beautiful “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today” finds Washburn singing of loved ones who have “lived and suffered in this world” but have “gone up to Heaven.” The tone is deceptively light, with Washburn’s voice showing a trace of optimism, imagining they are now in a better place.
The most powerful songs are when Fleck and Washburn turn their banjos to the blues. Discordant notes add an edge to “Little Birdy.” “Bye Bye Baby Blues” is a tempo-shifting blues strut, Washburn’s voice a sexy tease while Fleck plays multiple parts in an old saloon-style stage show. Stripped down to its raw elements, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn gives everything the duo needs to deliver a modern masterpiece of Americana: two banjos, two voices, and occasional percussion vibrating dust off the wooden floorboards.