Béla Fleck Shares Engaging Stories & Talks New LP ‘My Bluegrass Heart’ (Part 1 INTERVIEW)

Since obtaining his first banjo nearly fifty years ago as a gift from his grandfather at the age of fifteen, few musicians have done more to champion the oft-misunderstood instrument than Béla Fleck. From bluegrass to country to jazz to classical to pop and even African tribal music, the five-string master has left an indelible mark on nearly every musical genre imaginable. 

In addition to the remarkably impressive recording & live-performance output from his solo career as well as his legendary band The Flecktones, the New York City native has also collaborated with an equally long & imposing list of world-class musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Chick Corea, Zakir Hussain and the infamous Tuvan throat singer ensemble, Alash.

Bela has also received numerous accolades throughout his career as he is the most universally nominated instrumentalist in Grammy Award history, including a staggering 15 wins since 1995. 

With his latest release, My Bluegrass Heart, Béla is once again returning to his roots.  “They nearly always come back. All the people that leave bluegrass. I had a strong feeling that I’d be coming back as well”, said Fleck when asked about his first bluegrass studio project in over twenty years.

Inspired by a 2019 health scare with his son Theodore and dedicated to the memories of Tony Rice & Chick Corea – the album’s name was derived from Corea’s own 1976 solo release My Spanish HeartMy Bluegrass Heart is the third chapter in a series that started in 1988 with his studio release Drive and continued in 1999 with Tales from the Acoustic Planet Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions. 

“This is not a straight bluegrass album, but it’s written for a bluegrass band,” Fleck explains. “I like taking that instrumentation, and seeing what I can do with it – how I can stretch it, what I can take from what I’ve learned from other kinds of music, and what can apply for this combination of musicians, the very particularly ‘bluegrass’ idea of how music works, and what can be accomplished that might be unexpected, but still has deep connections to the origins.” 

In addition to the core group of musicians tabbed for the previous two albums (Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Mark Schatz & Jerry Douglas), Béla is also bringing with him an all-star cast of some of the current generation’s hottest bluegrass firebrands, resulting in an exhilarating double-LP that blurs the lines between traditional & progressive with a sound that is eminently unique to Mr. Fleck.

Glide’s Dave Goodwich spoke candidly with Béla for part one of an exclusive two-part career-spanning conversation covering a wide array of topics, including My Bluegrass Heart, Bill Monroe’s disdain of “Newgrass”, being Chick Corea’s bluegrass teacher, drugged-out hippos, and dealing with vertigo.

I’d like to start off by talking about the new album, My Bluegrass Heart. It’s essentially the third chapter of a musical trilogy that began with Drive In 1988 and then continued with Tales from the Acoustic Planet Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions in 1999. When you recorded Drive in 1988, was it your vision to eventually have an extended series of bluegrass-oriented albums or is this just how it naturally evolved? 

Drive was more like my wish list of who I would love to play with and play my bluegrass-oriented music with. Those were just the cats. Those are my favorite guys. Anytime I got to play with any one of them, I felt like I played at my best and I thought they were the modern voices of the time for that music. Not just because of their melodic sense, but also because of their rhythmic sense and the kind of sound they all make on their instruments. They all make an incredible tone. And then that album became a classic for me, personally. I just loved it so much that I wanted to do it again. But it was a matter of waiting for the right time. I went off and did the Flecktones for nearly 10 years and after that it felt like time. I felt like I had brought the banjo outside of the bluegrass world in such a way that people understood what I was going after. Because, you know, there’s a lot of prejudice against the banjo outside of bluegrass. And I also had a pretty big audience at that point. That was maybe the largest audience the Flecktones had, was around that point. So, I thought I could show all of those people where I came from, and I could show them something that they would like just as much as the Flecktones, maybe, and knock their socks off with these cats. You know, because I had their ear at that point. I had a pretty good career going. So, that’s when I did that second record. (The Bluegrass Sessions)

I really don’t know what Drive has sold at this point, but it’s not as many as you would think. Maybe 70,000 or something, which isn’t that much for that time period, compared to how much I was selling on other projects. But Bluegrass Sessions got close to 200,000 records sold and that was, you know, significant for bluegrass sales. Historically, there aren’t too many records that hit that number with a bluegrass lineup. So, it was just time to go back and do that. We took some time off with the Flecktones and I went out and toured with that group (Béla, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan & Mark Schatz) and that really helped cement the popularity of the record because we were out there doing it. 

Although, Tony Rice dropped out just before the tour, citing hand problems, which proved to be kind of the beginning of his issues. I guess he’d been keeping them to himself. He couldn’t see how he would be able to play the consecutive nights we were going to play because we played, you know, six nights a week for six weeks. We did long tours on a tour bus and he just couldn’t see how he could do that. So, he backed out and Bryan Sutton came in, and Brian kind of became this de facto replacement in the core group. He saved the day on that tour. He came in there and not only played great but he made it different than Tony would have made it and that was great. 

Now, I’m such a Tony Rice fan. Of course, I was disappointed he dropped out but I always thought it was a long shot that he would do the tour anyway. He had left me in the lurch a couple of times in the past on things like the night before a recording session where I was about to fly across the country and he suddenly decided he couldn’t do it. So, I knew there was always that potential with him but I always forgave him because it was Tony Rice. But Bryan was different. Not only could he do a lot of things Tony couldn’t do but he was, you know, super responsible. He was not going to show up, or anything like that. Now, he can’t do what Tony Rice could do. But Tony couldn’t do what he could do either. 

I guess you could say that Drive was the first record in this trilogy but playing with Tony Rice was really the beginning of this happening. I was playing with a lot of these other guys, but I hadn’t been playing with him.

This album is somewhat unusual for you in the sense that each track was recorded with a unique lineup of musicians rather than a single core band. 

Yeah, generally speaking, I’ve always thought that using a core band gave an album continuity. And if you had different people on different tracks; yeah, that was cool but, for one thing, the audience has to look at the liner notes to figure out who’s playing and it’s not the sense of a band. I was always into bands. I always wanted this to be a band that would go out and plays this music someday with the same people that played on the record. I’m a fan of, in general, getting to hear a whole band stretch out and do a lot of different things with the same guys. 

But this one just didn’t work out that way and it ended up being great even though it wasn’t my standard formula.

Do you think it’s something that you would consider doing again for another project? 

I don’t know. I mean, people think records are too long, but I think they’re kind of short. (laughs) Because, if you think about it, a whole concert is way longer than any CD. I’d prefer to have lots of relationships with different groups of musicians rather than have records that have different people on every cut, unless that’s the concept of the record. 

But, you know, I can see, for instance, doing a duo record with different people on every song or something where that’s built into the concept, but I kind of prefer really following an idea through with a particular lineup, in general. That being said, who knows? I may never make another record like that again. You never know. If you get stuck, you’re stuck. I don’t want to say because I just don’t know what’s coming next. 

Like, for instance, I have, in the can, a duo album with Abigail (Washburn), I have a duo album with Chick Corea, I have a band album with Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, and Rakesh Chaurasia, and they’re all the same personnel for the whole record. So, after that, I don’t know. I could see doing an even more traditional bluegrass record, or even a cover record of standards with a variety of people in the business. It could be fun, but we’ll have to see what feels right. It might be really nice to just go completely left after this sort of, touching base in kind of an epic way. I’m not saying it’s great. I mean, I do think it’s a really special record, but it was an epic endeavor. And I really got to play with a lot of my favorite players in the bluegrass world. But, you know, not everybody. There were certainly some misses where it just didn’t work out or there were just too many people, and I just didn’t have the space to do anymore. 

I think it allows each track to have its own unique identity, which is really quite refreshing.

Yeah, I think when you first hear it that it might be a little confusing, but as you get to know it, I think you would gradually be thankful because now you know who’s playing on this and can go “oh, I know who’s on there”. “There’s Chris’s voice. There’s Sam Bush counting that song off. There’s Jerry Douglas making a joke.” So, you hear that and you feel that.

Yeah, it’s fun to be able to hear, for example, a guitar-run and say, “That’s Billy Strings” or you recognize a fiddle and you know that it’s Michael Cleveland just based on their style and tone.

Yes. You can guess and be proved wrong on occasion which is fun too. (laughs) I’m trying to put together some kind of a little button you can press on a website or an app and a wheel spins and it tells you who’s playing on each track. It could be fun. (laughs) You know, make it really easy for people so they don’t have to look at tiny print on a CD. I mean, it doesn’t even say anything on Apple. They could find out easily and that is a lot of the fun of the record.

One of my favorite tracks from the album, “Vertigo”, was recorded with most of the members of the “Telluride House Band.” (Béla, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan & Bryan Sutton) Is it true that shortly after you initially debuted that song in 2018, you actually were diagnosed with a case of vertigo?

I was. I threw up all over the place several times and I couldn’t walk around the house. Luckily, I sort of somehow squeezed through this period where I didn’t have any gigs. And then, I was actually recording a Christmas show with Dailey & Vincent, of all people. They’d asked me to put together a triple banjo thing with Alison Brown and Kristin Scott Benson, two wonderful banjo players, and I couldn’t walk. I was helped to the stage and put on a stool and when I played, I was fine but all the rest of the time the room was spinning. After a few days, I kind of came back to myself enough to go on the road and play a show and then halfway through that show I came back to myself and then I was okay. 

Any regrets about the choice of song title now that you’ve actually experienced it first hand? 

Well, I thought it was funny, you know, at first, but now I don’t think it’s so funny. (laughs) It’s not a funny thing to have happen to you and I hope I never have it again, but it’s always possible. 

These little tiny crystals in your ear get out of place and they have to get back in place before you know which way is up. It’s really bizarre. And, there’s a maneuver, I forget the name, that good masseuses and chiropractors do where they turn your head a certain direction several times and kind of jog your head in a certain direction to get the crystals to start moving back in the right direction and, if it works, you start to feel normal again a few hours later. 

Speaking of song titles, at what part of the songwriting process do you typically come up with them? I ask because there are some amazing titles on this album, particularly “Hunky Dory (A Fiddle Tune Medley: Dankworth, Tweedledum, Flies in the Buttermilk, Tweedledee, Tweener, The Brooding Fowl)”.

Oh, you know, I find that things come to you when you’re not looking for them so you always have to be ready for them. And so, for me, I always have to be ready, so I always leave messages for myself. So, for instance, I’ll write myself a message on my phone when I think of a good song title and then every once in a while, I’ll go look at the “Béla Fleck messages” on my phone from myself and I write them all down in my computer. I have a long list with, I don’t know, hundreds and hundreds of names, a lot of them terrible. (laughs) Some of them crack me up though. Like, I had an idea for an Irish tune that would be “The Power of Paddy’s Black Bush” (laughs) They’re all Irish whiskies. So, I’ve been saving them for things, you know, funny stories about people that I met and are important to me, or whatever things that happened or just a funny turn of phrase.

So, I have all these lists and when it’s time to name the record, maybe six or seven of the tunes are already named. And some of them were only named at the last possible second before it had to go to press because I just kept going back and forth trying stuff. I couldn’t find something that really worked. They’re very important to me. I want to get them right. I want them to feel like that’s really the name of the song because you don’t have that much to go on without vocals. So, you’ve got to have something.

There’s also some that happened by mistake, like, for instance, “Charm School.” It’s a harmonic tune. Every banjo record needs to have a harmonic song and it has to have a tuner tune. That’s important. Earl Scruggs said that on Foggy Mountain Banjo. That’s the way it’s done. So, I had a harmonic tune in the key of C. And as a shorthand, I called it “C-harm” which spells “Charm.” So, at the recording session, I mentioned that we were gonna call this “Charm School” and Chris Thile thought that was great. He said, “You’ve got to call it that!” So, then I was like, okay, I guess I gotta call it that. 

It’s funny because now when I listen to it, I’ve come up with a backstory which is that, you know, on “Charm School”, if you listen to that track, we start out really playing quite beautifully and tastefully, but as the song goes on, the dogs get off their leashes and just start running frantically and wildly going crazy as dogs like to do. And then at the end, we have to put our leashes back on and conform. So, in a weird way, it’s the perfect title for that song. Even the way music relates to the idea of charm school, I think that sounds cool. I’m thinking of dogs, for some reason. I’m not thinking about, you know, girls going to learn enunciation. I’m thinking about dogs going to charm school. But it fits. You know, there’s a number of reasons why it works. So, I like that. 

And there are other things that occurred to me because I’ve got kids and I read books to Juno, and occasionally as we’re reading about dragons, or whatever, a great name pops up. Like, there’s a book called How to Train Your Dragon. The books are hilarious, I love them. And every once in a while, they’ll be a whole set of really good titles that I try to remember and jot them down before I forget, because I found myself searching through a book trying to find that great title that I checked out while I was reading him six chapters and I can’t find it. And sometimes I never find it. 

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In the past, for example, when recording the Flecktones album Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, you guys tabbed the audience for that album name. Do you still take suggestions from fans? 

I haven’t done that in a long time. But it was a fun thing to do and it made people feel part of things and it would be a fun thing to do like, online. Again, next time I get a chance. It’s a great idea. 

Also, just for the record, the person who sent up the note for that title originally called it “Flight of the Codeine Hippo” but we were not a drug band, trips to Canada notwithstanding. (laughs) No drug references in the Flecktones. We just didn’t want it that way because we have a lot of kids and people of all ages who listen to our music.

So, one day I thought, “Why don’t we go with ‘Flight of the Cosmic Hippo?’” I forgot all about the person giving us that little note, but at the time we laughed at it because it sounded exactly like what that song was. Victor had this bass line (hums some of the melody) that sounded like a drugged-out hippo. But at any rate, very cosmic. 

I love the story about another track on the album, “The Old North Woods”, which is a great triple-fiddle tune. You got that name after a backstage encounter with Bill Monroe. Was that the first time you got a chance to meet Bill?

I had met Bill before. Now, he was not very nice to us for a long period, although that did change at a certain point. And this was a stunning moment because of that. Like, for instance, he had said to Sam Bush, “What do you call your music? Newgrass? I hate that.” That’s what he said. You know, he was a little bit rude about people that were changing the music. He didn’t like it.  And yet, on this day, we pulled up in our little bread truck and there’s Bill Monroe with these two young ladies on either arm and his mandolin in his hands. And he walks directly up to our bread truck as we’re getting out – you know, we’ve been driving for who knows how many hours to, I think it was, Wisconsin – and he just climbs into the truck and says, “Hey, I’ve got a tune for you.” It was just crazy. (laughs) And he was really just trying to impress these girls, I think. But it seemed like that a corner was turned too because now we knew that he could actually be nice to us sometimes. 

Anyway, he played this tune. It sounded like a lot of Bill Monroe tunes sounded at the time. It went to the IV chord on the bridge. And he said, “Now if you play this tune, it’ll be good to you throughout the years. Will ya’ do it?” You know? Like, he’s giving us this tune. And I said, “Sure. What do you call it?” And he said, “Oh, I call it ‘The Old North Woods’ because when I was driving up here on my tour bus, I looked out the window and I saw these woods and I was thinking there’s no telling how long these woods have been out here.  So, I call it ‘The Old North Woods.’” (laughs) I wish I remembered the tune because I would be playing it right now. But I don’t. I wish I did though because it was just one of those moments. And, I come to find out that Sam Bush also titled one of his tunes “The Old North Woods”, and I got in touch with him. I said, “Hey, I was gonna call it this. Is that a problem?” He said, “No. Let’s both have an Old North Woods.”

I noticed that some of the melodies on a couple of songs off the new album – “Hug Point”, “Round Rock” and “Our Little Secret”, for example – have almost classical music feel to them, which, you know, is certainly uncommon in traditional bluegrass, but it does seem to be somewhat of a common theme in many of your compositions. How much influence, if any, does classical music have in your approach to songwriting? 

Yeah, well, classical music surely has a big impact on my writing, but so does jazz and so does pop music, especially older pop. James Taylor songs, or Sting songs, or pop from the 40s and 50s. Music with chord changes and music with harmony. You know, just because it’s a bluegrass instrumentation doesn’t mean we can’t have some harmony. It doesn’t have to be I-IV-V. 

I remember, a friend of mine once said, “Bluegrass was jazz for the harmonically challenged.” (laughs) And I always was like, well, that’s funny, but I want to write some songs that have that bluegrass feel, but also go some different harmonic places that really make some moves. And of course, people have been doing that for years. But to me, it’s important as a musician to go for a harmonic journey. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be crazy complicated, although it’s okay once in a while. But it’s nice just to go some places and still have that feel. And I think it made some of the music more unusual to have that kind of rhythm and that kind of “rootsiness” combined with that kind of harmony. That might be one of the very things that give it its own personality if it does.

Well, it absolutely works. That musical ideology that you just talked about. It definitely comes through on this album. It’s bluegrass, without question, but not in the traditional sense, and the end result is phenomenal.

I’m glad you think so. I was hoping it would hang together and I am proud of it.  A lot of them are tunes I’ve had for a long time that I was fond of and I was not finding a way to place them in my musical situations. And yet, I knew they were tunes that I didn’t want to lose or forget about. Tunes like “Round Rock” is a particular favorite. I kept trying it. I tried it with the Flecktones. I tried it in different situations. It just never found its home and then I thought, “This really needs a bluegrass band to play this tune.” I thought it could have been done with almost any group, but it really came alive with a bluegrass rhythm. 

So that’s the thing. You know, sometimes it’s something that you don’t think is gonna work that really works. And if you don’t try it, you’ll never find out. So, I encouraged myself to be a little bit brave, especially when I realized I was over-recording. I thought, well, you know, I’ll get rid of this stuff that doesn’t work. But eventually, I fell in love with all of it and all the musicians who played on it and I didn’t want anybody who had worked hard on it to not get the songs that they played on to come out. So finally, I went, okay, I guess I’m doing a double record, which means I get to write a few more songs. So, at the last minute, I wrote “Strider” and I had essentially completed “Hug Point”, I had it in pieces. I like the idea of a real suite that, you know, went a lot of different places, but was still very melodic and pretty. 

So, there were no tracks recorded for this album that was ultimately omitted?

No, everything made it.

On one of the tracks, “Hunky Dory”, you used a cello banjo. Is that just a regular four or five-string banjo that is tuned down an octave to more closely resemble the tone of a cello?

Exactly. They’re made by Gold Tone, you can go look at their website. They’re huge.  18” pot, no back. They’re really funky. And they’re really fun to play and you play things on them you wouldn’t normally play but you know your way around because it’s the same tuning as a regular banjo. So, I always think about John Hartford and how he liked to have his banjos tuned down low to E or lower down to D or C on some of his early records. And so, I have a low C banjo that Gold-Tone made for me, called “The Missing Link.” It’s the missing link between the normal banjo and the cello banjo, because they’ve had their cello banjo out for quite a while, and it’s been a successful instrument. So, at any rate, I was thinking of John Hartford. He loved to play these extended fiddle tunes, and to me, that first part of “Hunky Dory” sounds like a John Hartford tune to me. Maybe not a particular one, but it has him in it. And him being a primary influence, I wanted to do it. So, he likes to go down to C and I dropped it all the way down to low G, an octave below a normal banjo.

That’s another sort of different idea of a way to use harmony. Which is, have the tunes change key and go in a certain direction and then land you back in the original key but take a journey. Originally, I thought it was going to be like a rondo form where you play the first part and then you play the second part, and then you come back play the first part, then you play the third part, then you play the first part again. That’s classical rondo form. But I think in a rondo, at the end, you have to reverse it and do it backward, like a palindrome. So, I prefer the idea of taking the part of the rondo where you alternate the same part between every new section and never come back to a section and use each part in a new key so that you land back in your original key unexpectedly. And I like the idea of the arrangement where only one person is playing with me at a given time partly because the cello banjo disappears once you stick a guitar or, you know, strumming instruments in there with it. It has a way of being too thick and too deep and just will go away. So, this was a way to reveal the cello banjo, have a lot of little duets, revere John Hartford, and then have everybody jump in at the end altogether. 

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

How often do you perform or record with one of those?

I play them with Abigail. That’s when I started using them. And in our duo show, she was playing it a lot. I think I got one and she tried it and she sort of took it away from me and then I never had it again. So, we started performing together as a duo and I would play it for certain tunes. And then I got my own, even though the first one was mine too (laughs), I got another one. So now we have two of them in different tunings that we carry with us on the road. 

So, some songs where she plays her normal banjo, I’ll drop down to the cello banjo and play sort of a bassline kind of a part rather than another banjo sounding part. I think of myself as her bass player. And it’s a lot of fun because I’m still in the banjo tuning, I know my way around but it’s in a whole different register.  

In addition to citing a desire to play with the newer generation of bluegrass musicians, you have mentioned that another factor that inspired this album was a 2019 health scare with your son Theodore. How did that experience manifest itself in terms of leading to the recording of My Bluegrass Heart?

Yeah, our younger son turned out to have a hereditary disease that we had no idea about. The scare was that his blood wouldn’t clot so, he was cut and continued to bleed for days and we were in the hospital trying to figure out what it was. And luckily, they were able to get it stopped before he bled out. But it was it was extremely petrifying. 

So anyway, sometime after that, he was okay. It wasn’t like I neglected him to go do this. We were home. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to do things I could do from home. But also, it was a compulsion. People said, “Well, why are you booking sessions now?” Like, we had just gotten through this thing and Abbi was completely traumatized and I was too, but it was almost like I was compelled to do it. I had been thinking about it, and it had been on my mind and all of a sudden, it felt like I had to do it. And I think maybe part of it is a sense of wanting control. Like, I know how to make music, and I wanted to go do something I could control. I couldn’t control what was happening with my son when he was, you know, in this very dangerous situation. There was nothing I could do. So, there’s a powerless feeling. And then bluegrass being something where, you know, I feel very at home. I feel like, despite being known as a little bit of an outsider to that world, it’s actually the world I know the best, musically. And so, I felt like it was a safe thing to go do that would be very grounding. And I’d be with my old friends that I’ve loved for my whole career playing music. You know, the Sam Bush & Jerry Douglas guys. And I could do it from my house. I hadn’t quite decided what the lineup would be or how it was going to happen. But that’s what led to it. That was the impetus. 

I love how many of the tracks contain informal banter between yourself and all the musicians that occurred in between recording takes. What led to that decision?

I’ve always loved that stuff. I left it on there thinking someone was going to say, “Hey, that’s really not good. You really got to get rid of that.” But instead, everyone who I played the record for said, “Oh, you got to keep that. Don’t get rid of that.”, including the record label. So, I was kind of hoping people would say that, but I wasn’t sure.

One of the records that I loved a lot starting out as a musician was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle be Unbroken?, and you could hear Doc Watson talking to Vassar Clements and Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin. You know, that sort of thing is cool. I just liked it. So, I always try to keep a few count offs and I’ve had that desire to have records that were like that. In fact, if you listen to the very beginning of the first track of The Bluegrass Sessions, it begins with a false start with everybody, you know, talking to each other.  And then there’s a song on Drive if you listen to the play out at the end of “Sanctuary.” Even here, it’s just goofing around and talking and laughing and I always loved that kind of stuff. 

I think the other thing is, it humanizes the situation because these are studio gems. I mean, people worked really hard on this music and, in a way, if everything goes quiet to dead silence, it almost seems like people didn’t really do this stuff. But they did. You know we all sat together and we recorded the stuff together. And yeah, there was some editing. You know, I cut between different takes but nobody did any big fixes. Everybody just left and I had these piles of takes to go through and figure out, where is the gold? It was always played live; everyone was always in the room. 

It definitely adds an element of intimacy. 

Yeah. It’s just a reminder that this is a human being. This is not a programmed situation.

How composed and written out was each track before you brought it to the different groups of musicians? How much of a part did they play in the composition of each song? 

This kind of music needs a lot of personal interpretation. So, I would have a sketch.  I would have a few sections that I expected certain things like certain melodies that had to happen. For instance, on “Round Rock”, which we talked about, that dobro melody has to be played. The fiddle melodies have to be played on the bridges, because they’re fundamental parts of the song. But aside from that, everything else is fair game. You know, you’re gonna play your riff and you’re gonna play your solo.  You’re gonna look for places to respond and be yourself. 

But then a song like “Our Little Secret” is much more highly composed. And if you listen to the opening, there’s what was originally a pizzicato string section part that is split up between the violin, guitar, and bass. So, it’s like (hums melody) and you hear this rolling thing and it’s panning back and forth between the guys, and I really didn’t know if they’d be able to play it. But, of course, I was dealing with Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton, and Billy Contreras and they could play it perfectly. So, they made it work. Then, as the song goes on, everyone gets to be themselves. But then all of a sudden, they have to go back to the written parts. So, I think one of the tricks in instrumental music, especially a lot of the kind of stuff people like me like to do, is this going back and forth between highly composed and completely uncomposed stuff. And that’s the beauty of it. I mean, it’s almost like everything just sort of sucks back into like, all of a sudden, we’re playing something perfectly together out of this wild improv. On a song like “Slippery Eel” you hear a lot of that, where we’re going crazy and then, out of nowhere, you’ve got to play this really hard-line in unison. This very fast jig with a lot of weird harmony. It’s very exciting to hear that jump. 

But it’s actually two different brain sides that have to be in sync. Because, you know, the side of your brain that practices and practices to play something really hard and really fast, perfectly, is a very different side of the brain than the side that is improvising freely and wildly with abandon. Going from abandon to precision is not the easiest thing in the world.

You dedicated this album to the memories of both Tony Rice and Chick Corea. Was there anything that you took away from your time playing with Chick that you were able to bring to any of your bluegrass-oriented projects?

I was fortunate enough to be Chick’s bluegrass teacher. (laughs) Because he even said, “You know, I don’t even know if I like bluegrass.” So, I said, “Well, one night when we’re driving somewhere, let me play you some stuff.” He always liked to get a Mercedes in our tour rider to drive us places. If we landed in like, Switzerland or something, we’d be driving in this lovely car, and we’d pop on something and then we listened and we talked about it. He played me stuff and I played him stuff. 

So, one day, I got to play him Flatt & Scruggs with Bill Monroe at the Opry, some of the first bluegrass that ever happened, and a bunch of different things that I thought were great. And he changed his tune. He said, “That’s really cool. That’s really funky. I really like that.” 

One thing Chick used to say to me was, “You want to know how you finish an orchestral piece? Well, you just write two lines at the end of wherever you are. When you’re out of time, the piece is done. That’s how you end it.” (laughs) And I said, “Wow, that’s interesting.” I mean, I certainly didn’t do it that way. When I wrote my classical pieces, I slaved and worried working it to death just to make sure there was a good ending. He didn’t worry about it though. I thought that was funny. He was just very much himself. Very confident and comfortable with who he was.

I remember he was on Terry Gross (Fresh Air) and he had a record out called Continents. And she said, “Tell me how the four pieces are like the different continents.” And he said, “I don’t know, Terry. I finished the record and I needed some titles and I noticed there were four pieces so I called it Continents.” So, here’s a guy who couldn’t care less. You know, I loved that about him.

The other thing about Chick was that he had a record called My Spanish Heart that was a favorite of mine when it came out. And, the interesting thing about Chick is that Latin music always was close to the center of who he was. But as time went on, I discovered that he actually was from the Boston area, and he was Italian. He wasn’t a Latin guy at all. And so, that resonated with me considering that I’m a New York City guy who grew up on the Upper West Side and has, you know, no connection to the south or to roots music whatsoever. My family is a Russian-German-Slavic kind of thing. I always felt like an outsider to bluegrass, and yet it’s the center of who I am. I have a bluegrass heart too. So, I told him, “Hey, I’ve got this new record I’m working on. And I’d love to play it for you. But how do you feel about me calling it ‘My Bluegrass Heart’?”, and he laughed and said, “Yeah. Go for it, man. That’s great.” He didn’t care. He wasn’t proprietary. He thought it was funny. But I never got to play it for him. And I never got to play it for Tony. And I’m sad about both of those because they’re both really important guys for me. 

Most of the material on My Bluegrass Heart, and really bluegrass in general, is upbeat and typically played at a pretty rapid pace. I think “Our Little Secret” is a great example of some of your relatively slower material from this album. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a slow song, but it certainly has a more relaxed tempo when compared to the rest of the album. Is there an additional challenge to writing slower material, especially when it comes to bluegrass? 

I love writing slow songs. Drive had a great slow song called “Lights of Home” and The Bluegrass Sessions had “Overgrown Waltz”, but for this album I just didn’t have anything. So, I finally decided that the diversity of the material would have to carry it. But there wasn’t really that super slow piece that I usually like to have somewhere on every record. 

Billy Strings appears on this album. You both recently had a chance to meet after running into him at a festival. What are your thoughts on playing with him and his contributions to the album?

Well, first of all, the day I met him was right after I got over vertigo. I was playing at a festival and I had just finished our set and suddenly I felt OK again. (laughs) So, I went back to the hotel and was sitting in the hotel room looking out the window and I see a little van pull up and a guy is sitting on the back bumper claw-hammering a banjo, I think. I recognized him, even though we had never met, so I said, “Is that Billy?” He said, “Yeah. Who’s that?” I responded, “It’s Bela.” He replied, “Hey! I love your music.” (laughs) So, I came on down and we had a nice parking lot chat. We didn’t play then, or anything, but I said, “Well, let’s play sometime.” And, he was just coming up then. He was nowhere near where he’s gotten to now. He was playing mid-day at the festival. 

It turned out he was living in Nashville. I got his number and when I was back home, he came over and we had a really nice jam, after the kids went to sleep, back in the TV room. He tore it up and I was like, “Well, here’s another option. Here’s another guy with a whole different take on bluegrass guitar since we don’t have Tony.” I have Cody Kilby. I love Cody. I have Bryan Sutton. I love Bryan. Here’s a whole new take on it. So, I thought, “Well, let’s get him on here if he wants to do it”, and he did. He wanted to do it and so we started being friends. 

He did a great job and he brought a really different color. And then I thought, “Well, who’s going to play with Billy Strings?” and that’s when I was thinking about Thile, and I wanted to invite him because he’s been a big part of my life. Ever since he showed up, you know, it’s been a different world. The bluegrass world has changed. And, he certainly knew my stuff inside and out, but he had never played on any of my records. So, I asked him if he might like to do something and if had he ever played with Billy. And he said, “No, I never have and that would be really fun.” He’s very open. 

So, I started thinking, “What am I going to come up with for these guys to play that’s going to push them? Where they’re going to leave and go, ‘Yeah, we worked really hard. That was really exciting.’” And, you know, so they weren’t just jamming on one chord or something. So, I came up with some fairly challenging stuff for them. And they rose, as they do. 

A few years ago, you mentioned that, primarily because of your incredibly busy schedule, you didn’t get a chance to listen to much of the newer generation of string bands and musicians. Has that changed as a result of this project? 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are people that I like a lot. I had run into Michael Cleveland, and I thought he was going to be a super traditional kind of guy, but it turned out he loved Andy Statman, who was one of my formative people, and had recorded with him up in Brooklyn. He’s a klezmer musician and mandolin player. Who else am I thinking of? Oh, yeah, Dominic Leslie. I had heard him playing at a jam in Colorado and thought, “Wow, there’s some really good people.” 

Now, Sierra Hull, weirdly enough, and I’m embarrassed about this, was an afterthought here. For Sierra and Molly Tuttle, it was Abby tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Hey, there’s no girls on this record. Are they really not up to it?” And I said, “No, they are up to it. You’re right!” It was an unconscious bias. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it until then.  But, I’m so glad I got them to play (laughs) because they brought something really, really special. And Sierra is just tearing up these live shows. I produced a record for her but we hadn’t ever really become collaborators in the truest sense. And, it was during these couple of tracks on the record, the final sessions of the record in December, before the pandemic really hit, that we started to explore actually playing music together, not just me helping her make her record. And I hope we’ll be doing that for a long time. Because she’s a firecracker. She’s just all over it, doing great stuff. And, like I said, Michael proved to be very interested in being creative and moving outside his comfort zone. Maybe he felt a little pigeon-holed, like, “Oh, he’s just a Trad guy”, and doing some stuff with somebody more progressive and not only showing his cards but showing that he has a lot more cards than people thought he had would be a good thing. And it’s turned out to be just wonderful. 

We’ve done one gig, and everybody rehearsed their buns off and killed it. Sierra killed all this material that she didn’t originally play on. And Bryan & Michael, they learned everything. Everyone else learned all the songs and are playing them like themselves. I’m really proud and excited about this first band that’s going to go on the road. (Béla, Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, Bryan Sutton) And then, I’m really excited in December to go out with the “old dogs.” That’s what we should call them. (laughs) Sam, Jerry, me, Edgar, Stuart and Bryan is going to be great too, but in a whole different way. 

This is the first album of yours to be released on the relatively new label Renew Records, after years of working primarily with recording labels Rounder & Craft. How has it been working with them? 

Yeah, I thought this was going to be on Rounder, but as it came closer, it sounded like things changed quite a bit over there and what they were after didn’t include this sort of thing anymore. So thankfully, there were a lot of people that were very, very eager to have the record so it didn’t turn out to be a problem. But I was rather surprised when they walked away from it, especially since they had been planning to do it. So that was an odd moment, but we’re all friends. It’s got to work for everybody and luckily, we found a new label full of people that really know their business. It’s a new division of BMG, which has a lot of great energy and they have something to prove. They want to do really well with this. And maybe on Rounder it wouldn’t have gotten the same attention especially since, you know, they clearly needed to go in a different direction. 

How does it compare to working with the big record labels like Warner Brothers, Sony & Capitol Records that you dealt with during the 80’s & ’90s?

Well, I have to say my time at Warner Brothers was kind of awesome. But, you know, inevitably what happens is, after you’ve been with a label for seven years, or something like that, most of the people that know you and that you care about have left, and they’re replaced by people that may not be that interested in what you’re doing, which is a good argument for shorter record deals. Because, you know, if you don’t have the team that you thought you were gonna have and you owe them ten records, then those last few records are really lonely. (laughs) They don’t do well and nobody cares and the people aren’t pushing it. And it kind of goes with the curve of a career because there’s a buzz when you sign to a label and they’re really into it. And that can only last for a certain amount of time before it’s going to fade and everybody needs to change, but you can’t get your feelings hurt. 

So, then I got to move to Sony which was a little more frustrating, although I had a really good experience with Sony Classical. They did really well with Perpetual Motion. But other things were very frustrating over there and that’s why I went back to Rounder.  Because all the same people were still there that were there when I was a kid. But since then, of course, most everyone is gone. When I went back to Rounder there were bunch of new people, and not all of them value my kind of thing the way the older folks did. 

Have you dealt with any pushback from the traditional bluegrass community over the course of your career? 

I haven’t dealt with it as much as some of the people that came before me. I think of my teacher, Tony Trischka, who was an astonishing banjo force, who, really, in a lot of ways, hadn’t had the success he deserved in that world and put up with a lot of crap. Constant letters to the editors of Bluegrass Unlimited about, you know, “this is terrible music.” People were just really were protective of the tradition of bluegrass. And when people started to change the music, especially Yankees from up north, they didn’t treat them that well in the beginning. Now things are a lot better. By the time I came along, a lot of those battles had kind of been fought and it was normal for there to be people that played crazy bluegrass, like Tony did. 

And it was also not unheard of for someone from up north to come down and play really well traditionally like Bill Keith, who played with Bill Monroe and Bill Monroe loved him. I think he was from Massachusetts originally. But you know, a lot of the battles have been fought. 

By the time I joined New Grass Revival, they were modernists that were changing the music and they got their share of crap from the Trad folks, but they were at least from the south. They were from Kentucky. So, when I joined New Grass, that gave me a certain credibility. And then when we sort of transformed from being a hippie band to sort of being, I’d say, kind of the most visible bluegrass band short of Bill Monroe, in that we were on TV a lot, we were signed to major labels, we headlined all the festivals for many years, we kind of moved a little more toward the center, although we continued to be very creative. At any rate, that kind of helped me to be seen as a part of the Southern community as well. 

So, it was never much of a hindrance at all really. In fact, I would say in some ways, it was helpful, because I was, you know, aligning with a certain group of people that were moving the music forward. Now, I also have a lot of respect for anyone who loves bluegrass that’s traditional and doesn’t like modern bluegrass. I think that’s their right and they don’t have to like it if they don’t like it, and I wouldn’t want to push it on them. I get why you would want bluegrass to not change. I love traditional bluegrass, too. But you know, as life has gone on, and also maybe being a parent, I’ve just kind of come to this point where I feel like the more things you decide aren’t good for some reason or other, the less you get to enjoy. (laughs)

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of Glide’s conversation with Bèla as we discuss his remarkable career and future with the Flecktones, among other topics.

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