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 fifteen 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 Heart – My 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 the conclusion of an exclusive two-part career-spanning conversation covering a wide array of topics, including the future of the Flecktones, his thoughts on Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the chances of a New Grass Revival reunion and the challenges of composing lyrics.
Moving on to the Flecktones, you guys have plans to tour coming up at the beginning of 2022, but it’s been a decade since the last studio album was released. (Rocket Science in 2011) Do you currently have any plans to record a new album with them?
Nothing at the moment, although there’s no reason why we wouldn’t. I think everybody’s lives have kind of moved on and it’s easier to get back together and do a tour where we play the music from the records than it is to like, sit down, get creative, and go make a whole new fresh start. I certainly hope we do that at some point. It’s not on the front burner, but it’s certainly always there. I guess if everybody really wanted to do it then I would totally be into doing it.
There were so many years where I pushed the Flecktones so hard and I felt like people were kind of ready to do other stuff that I’ve taken a little bit of a laissez-faire attitude, maybe partly because I was so in love with the Flecktones and what we were doing, that I was a little hurt that anybody would want to do anything else. And when we finally split off and started doing our own separate things, it was really good for everybody, including me. It was actually very good for me. I kind of thought, “Well, you know, I don’t have to push this. I need to wait till there’s a time when everybody really wants to do this.” And, you know, I get those signs periodically, that it will happen again.
Do you still enjoy playing older material such as “Stomping Grounds” & “Sinister Minister” as much today as when you originally wrote them?
You know, it’s kind of nice playing these tunes that have sort of stood the test of time. (laughs) When you first play them, it’s so exciting, and you’ve got something new and you’ve got a fresh breath of something no one’s heard before. And then, as you play them over and over again over the years and come back to them, some of them sort of start to stick. Like, they become part of the musical firmament a little bit. And, you know, things like “Sunset Road”, “Sinister Minister”, and “Stomping Grounds”, I just really don’t get tired of doing them.
There was a time when we made a point of not doing them because we were trying to not get stuck where we could only play our so-called “hits”. And, we wanted the band to keep moving forward. So, we would sort of, you know, wait till the very end of the show to play anything from the old records and mostly we would play the new music. I’m kind of taking that perspective with this new bluegrass tour too, where people are saying, “Oh, you got to play ‘Drive’, you got to play ‘Whitewater’, you got to play some New Grass. What are you going to do?” And I’m like, “No, we’re gonna come out and play this new record from top to bottom.” It’s probably not the smartest thing to do. (laughs) “Are you going to play ‘Big Country?” No. That’s not what we’re doing here. We’re playing the new music. That’s the whole point. That’s what everyone wants to do.
So, you know, there’s a balance of that in the musical life of going back to things and playing something you did before and enjoying that very, very much. And then just saying, “No, this time, we’re really going somewhere else and we’ve got to go all the way” or it’s not going to work. It’s not a retrospective where you’re covering your whole career. This is a moment that we’re trying to achieve something together.
Is your approach to songwriting and recording with the Flecktones different from My Bluegrass Heart or any of your other projects?
They’re all different. But for instance, the simplest way to see it is, if you’re playing a classical concerto, every single note is written out, and I have to have everything and the charts have to be extremely readable, and the musicians have to be able to read it down so you can learn a 35-minute piece in two hours. You know, a whole orchestra and get it to where they can play it perfectly in a concert. That’s all the time you get to rehearse for an orchestra piece.
But with the Flecktones, in the beginning, I would just start playing. I never would say anything about the song. I’d just say, “Hey, I got a tune and here it is” and I’d just start playing and then they’d play along. And we had time, you know? We would play a song for two hours after soundcheck, you know, and just stop in time to let the audience in and then do the concert. And the rest of the band would find their own way and it would start to build out and all these things would start to occur as each person found their own way into it, without me saying much of anything. It would evolve.
And we could even start rehearsing the tunes live because, at that time, people weren’t recording our shows en masse. We always let people record the shows, but it wasn’t the internet generation yet. It wasn’t like we did a song on stage and it was everywhere the next day, and it wasn’t any good yet. So, everyone would say, “Oh, I heard that song. It’s not very good.” Because, once that started to happen, I didn’t really want to rehearse songs on stage. We used to have four or five songs every night that was, like, not quite completely together. We’d just put them on stage and see what happens. But now, everybody’s filming it, and not only is it not copywritten, but you’re also still working out the kinks. So, we kind of stopped doing that. We started to do more rehearsing at soundcheck and not during the show. So, by the time we made Rocket Science, that whole record was done in the studio. Like, we sent the music around, got together and rehearsed a bit, and then recorded it, but we didn’t have that period of working out the kinks, which I really miss personally. I think that’s a great thing to do for music. You want to own it. You don’t want to just get through it. And you can only own it by playing a lot. Working it out and fleshing it out. You know, instead of writing twenty tunes, just write one tune, but just keep on developing sections and finding new ways to make it better. Keep on adding and adding.
Is it true that Victor Wooten originally auditioned for you over the phone?
That’s the first time I heard him, was over the phone. He wasn’t actually auditioning because I didn’t have a band, but it was definitely the impetus to us getting together and eventually led to the start of the Flecktones. You could say that I was quite an established musician at that point in New Grass Revival, and he wasn’t as well known yet, so, you could call it an audition if you want, in that, if it went well, we might end up playing together a lot. And that is what happened. But mostly, I was just knocked out. I couldn’t believe he could play that way.
What kind of impact did it have on yourself and the group when Jeff Coffin left to join the Dave Matthews Band full-time?
Yeah, well, that was an interesting point because we’ve made a lot of records with Jeff but, I don’t know, there wasn’t a lot of energy right then to keep going. People were doing a lot of other stuff. I didn’t know when we were going to play together again. And maybe we kind of hadn’t figured out what the next thing for the band was going to be with Jeff. And so, at the time, when he said, “Hey, listen, I got a call from Dave, and they’d like to offer me that job”, I said, “Listen, Jeff, you’ve been with us for 14 years, you’re on, I think, six or seven records. We did it, you know? Go do this. You’re going to have been the saxophone player for the Flecktones for all these years, and then play the arenas with Dave Matthews. Go do it.” So, he went and did that. And I thought it was the right time for something different to happen. Although, I love Jeff passionately. I can say that he’s just one of my dearest friends, and has shown me so much. I’ve learned so much from him. We had a particular sound with him that was very saxophone-oriented. And when Howard (Levy) was in the band, it was a little weirder, a little more unique, in a way, because the harmonica was not typically played that way. Jeff brought us a little bit into the mainstream, really, which was, you know, a nice place to be.
And, you know, with the rhythm section we had, we could kind of sound more like a lot of the current, sort of cool and hip-hoppy jazz of the day. But the band was always, you know, a lot of things, and that was only a piece of it. There’s a lot of parts of the band that weren’t getting serviced the same way. We didn’t have recording instruments, like the piano. So, at any rate, when Jeff left, sometime later, I don’t know if it was still another six months or another year before I said to the guys, “Hey, what do you think? Do you want to get together?” and everyone said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I asked, “Do you want to try some new people and see about going in a whole new, different direction?” And Victor and Roy said, “We should see what Howard wants to do, because maybe he’d like to come back.” They were all about Howard coming back, and I was kind of leaning towards looking for a whole different direction to go. But we got together with Howard. He was into it. He had a great time.
I think I had some tough times built around when Howard was leaving the band, which was traumatic for me, you know, because we have this amazing band and after three years, he really needed to leave, and it was much more of a loss at that point because I didn’t know if we were going to survive. But losing Jeff wasn’t so hard because I knew we could survive. We had survived all these changes over and over again. So, at any rate, Howard came back, and we found it to be a joy. He had a lot of new energy and he had not stood still in all that time. He’d grown as a player and, I mean, he was already the best player in the band (laughs) in certain ways, you know, but now he’s even better. He’s a real team player.
So now we had piano again. We could have harmony. We had this very unique vocal voice of the harmonica being, you know, a much less heard sound on radio, or out in the world, and saxophone, which you’ll hear more of. There’s a lot more saxophone players and there’s really nobody who plays the harmonica like he does. So, it ended up being the perfect thing and we’ve really enjoyed having him back.
You mentioned earlier that you’re always open in terms of your future plans with the Flecktones, but do you ever envision getting back to the point where they’re the central musical focus for everyone, as it was during the ’90s?
Yeah, I mean, I could see that taking an album cycle. Like saying, “Okay, for the year of 2027, or whenever, we’re gonna do this a lot for two years, and we’re gonna make a record, and we’re gonna go out and really do it.” And then I imagine we would go back to all the other things that we’ve all got brewing, because everyone’s got a lot of musical relationships that are important to them, and a lot of things that they can’t express when they’re full-time Flecktones.
I mean, Chick would do this with Return to Forever periodically. He’d bring them all back together and they would play to that audience that loved them so much and enjoyed their history, and then they go on to different things. So, I think it’s more likely to follow that kind of a template.
Speaking of that one-off mindset, have there ever been discussions with Sam Bush or John Cowan about doing some sort of New Grass Revival reunion project?
The discussions have not gotten far, because everyone doesn’t want to do it. If everyone wanted to do it, we would have done it. We’ve had some ridiculous offers to get together and do it but it only takes one person to not want to do something, and you can’t do it. It’s a “key-man” situation. If any one person doesn’t want to do it, then it’s not that band. So, we would have had to have everybody want to do it. And I would love for that to happen. But at this point, I’m kind of getting to the point where I don’t expect it.
In 1989 & 1990, you got to open for the Grateful Dead & the Jerry Garcia Band. What was that experience like?
It was great. Our final show with New Grass Revival was opening for the Dead (12/31/1989) and it was frustrating because, all our career, we had been trying to be taken seriously outside of the bluegrass world and on our final gig we finally were. We played New Year’s Eve with the Grateful Dead for 10,000 people who loved the band. And it was like, if we had these people back when we were trying so hard to get on radio and things like that, maybe it wouldn’t have been so difficult. You know, we were just about four or five years too early for the jam-band thing. But we would have had a home in that world that would have suited all of us quite well.
Do you consider yourself a Deadhead?
No, I’m not a deadhead. There were songs that I liked of theirs and there were things that I thought were really cool, but it was just a little too meandering for me. I was more of a jazz guy. And yet, I had a lot of respect for Jerry and what they’d achieved. Jerry was a lot more than just the Grateful Dead. I have more respect for them now than maybe ever. But that just wasn’t my thing. I wanted to play like, you know, the great bluegrass players, which was a different attitude altogether, and maybe even a different technical level that I was striving for. Like, the great jazz players.
But with the Dead, you know, there’s a lot of smoke in the air and the people were mellow. It’s music that I can relate to more now than I could back then when I was hyped up trying so hard to play at a certain technical level. It just wasn’t my thing. But that being said, I really liked Jerry and I was thrilled that he allowed us to open for him and that he brought us in to open for the Dead. And I got to play with David Grisman and we became, you know, I can’t say we’re friends, but we’re very friendly. I mean, I don’t have his number, but when I saw him, it was very warm.
How would you rate Jerry as a banjo player?
Very good. I mean he always was a soulful cat. That’s the thing about Jerry and that’s what you saw when you looked him in the eyes. There was a warmth and a deep soul there. And he played the banjo with good taste. You know, he had a missing finger and he still managed to play really well. I always like it when I hear it. I find that there’s a brain in there playing. It’s very thoughtful, and he has an understanding of what the banjo does. It’s tasteful and it didn’t sound like anybody but him.
Another person that you’ve collaborated with, even though it’s been a while since you’ve gotten the chance to play together, is Bruce Hornsby. Do you still speak with him and are there any plans to ever do anything with him in the future?
Yeah, we actually just spoke a few days ago. I sent him a link to the record. I had heard he had appendicitis and had to have his appendix out suddenly. So, I got in touch with him to see how he was doing and then one thing led to another and I sent him a link to the album. And he really dug it. So, we were chatting and catching up just a few days ago.
I feel like he’s kind of a brother. We’re on a similar journey, he and I. I remember first meeting him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and it was, you know, the last New Grass Revival year, so it had to have been 1989. And again, we were so frustrated trying to get accepted outside of the country music world, which really didn’t like us that much anyway, as opposed to the bluegrass world, which really did like us. And Bruce was one of the people where we would always think, “Why can’t we open for Bruce Hornsby? We love him. Why can’t that be? That would be a great place for us”, and the agency would say, “Oh, they’re not going to be interested in anything like you.” (laughs) Well, we get to Telluride that year and Bruce Hornsby is like, “Hey. I’m the biggest New Grass Revival fan. Will you guys please play with me?” And he ended up doing his set with the Range where he brought us all out. And I was going to LA the following week and he said, “I’m recording down there. Come play on my record.” And that was the first time I played on a record of his. I think it was A Night on the Town.
That was very exciting for me, but it always struck me that the gatekeepers never seem to really know what they were talking about. They’d say, “You know, your only chance at success is to make it in country music.” I was like, “We’re not a country music act! We don’t sing the right way. We don’t play the right way.” “Well, you’re never gonna get a gig.” “What about the Grateful Dead? What about Bruce Hornsby?” “Oh, you’ll never get those.” Well, sure enough, just as we’re breaking up, most of those organizations ended up embracing us.
The list of collaborators whom you’ve had the chance to work with throughout your career is seemingly endless. Is there anyone left in terms of people that you haven’t had the chance to work with yet that you would still like to?
Yeah, there’s a few people that I love. You know, I don’t have to play with them to love them. People like Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock seem like they would be really fun to play with. It hasn’t really come my way, but that would be neat. Wynton Marsalis and I have been friendly. I’ve jammed with him a little bit. It’s really been fun. (laughs) I’m thinking of jazz guys. I like to play with people that know stuff that I don’t know. And so, in a weird way, it’s like, why would they want to play with you if you don’t know how to play with them? Well, that’s the problem. But that’s where I learn. Like, I love playing with Marcus Roberts. And, Branford Marsalis and I have played together a bit, but I’ve never really done a project with Wynton or Wayne Shorter. You know, I’m big into jazz guys.
But, I’m also a huge fan of U2. I mean, I would love nothing more than to just get to rip a little on the banjo, either live or on record with someone like that. You know, there’s plenty of people I really like. There are people I like a lot like Annette Cohen, this great Israeli clarinet player. They tend to be in the jazz world. There’s a guy named Edmar Castañeda who plays the Peruvian harp and is an unbelievable player and we’ve done some stuff together. We were actually getting ready to start doing stuff when the pandemic hit and we had to put it on hold. Look him up if you want to see something interesting.
But I thought about Bruce again because we did some duo gigs. One time he couldn’t get his band to come and had a couple of gigs, and we went out as a duo and it was really fun. And then we played as a duo at Telluride one year, and it was great. I loved it. I would love to do that again someday. I need another piano player now that Chick has left the building.
Since 1986, you’ve won fifteen Grammys (including one Latin Grammy), and have been nominated for more Grammy Awards in different categories than any other instrumentalist, including the 2020 nominee for Best Historical Album, Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions. What, if anything, do those awards and accolades mean to you?
Well, it’s sweet. The truth is, to have that many is noticeable. You know, when you win your first one, it’s like, “Holy cow, this is unbelievable. I can’t believe it.” It’s like, if I never win another one, I’ve already got way more than my share.
But what it means is that during the period that I’ve had in my career, people in the music business have noticed what I’m doing and enough of them liked it to vote for those projects. You know, it’s a little bit of a popularity contest, because a lot of people don’t win that ought to. So, what it actually means is that you’ve gotten people’s attention. It doesn’t mean your music is any better than anyone else’s. But it means that you’ve registered and meant something to those people. And those people are all musicians. So, it’s not a bad thing at all. And yet, it’s not everything, but it’s something.
Have you ever been approached to score a movie soundtrack?
I haven’t gotten to score anything that I was really creatively excited about. I have done the odd song for things, like, The Beverly Hillbillies movie, which, I actually got in touch with them and said, “Hey, let’s make this a good remake of Beverly Hillbillies. I’ll do it for nothing.” And they hired me to come in and do it and put together a great band. And we did a good job of it, I think.
But there were a few other things here and there. The Flecktones did some work on Striptease with Demi Moore. (laughs) But, typically, I keep wondering why that doesn’t come along more often. I would really like to do something like a score, which was like, also almost a little banjo thing. I think that would be such a cool thing. Because a banjo can be so evocative. It can be so slow and mournful and it can be in a big open room and have a lot of reverb and a lot of vibe. You know, a really unique score. So hopefully someday I’ll get to do that on a movie. I think about movies like Paris, Texas, where Ry Cooder got to really just stretch out and make space. I like to do those kinds of things with the banjo.
I read that you and Abigail will oftentimes make up songs about menial tasks or common chores such as cleaning the house or changing diapers. Have any of those ever developed into full-fledged compositions for your duet performances or any other projects that you’ve had?
No, but they will because we’ve recorded them. When you get a good one, you save it. Abbi and I have had the idea to do some children’s projects. Although, the one thing that did make it is; Abbi was teaching Juno to bang on the table in time, and she started singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in a minor key. So, she called me up and put me on FaceTime, I was traveling at the time, and she said, “Hey, check it out.” And she started singing and Juno was banging on the table. I said, “Hey, that’s really cute, but I really liked that in the minor key.” And so, I worked it up, and it ended up being a really good thing that came out of it. You know, you don’t have hits at this level of music, but you can have pieces that resonate.
I think it’s fair to say that a large majority of the compositions you’ve written throughout your career are instrumentals. Is there an added challenge to writing lyrics, as opposed to just the music for songs?
There is. I tend to be very opinionated about lyrics for someone who doesn’t typically write them. I think Abbi is a really great writer. I think she’s written some great lyrics. And yet, when a song is written by the two of us, I gotta have something to say about it, too. And so, I find I have very strong opinions. When I write lyrics, I want them to be very direct and clear, and she likes to write poetry. So, we actually had a hard time finding the middle ground. Like, how we could write songs together. And eventually we figured it out and I think we’re both happy. She would help me write direct things that she could sing and I would help her, you know, clarify what some poetry meant, because I wanted it to make sense.
I like things to be gettable, you know? She was very comfortable with being very poetic, and not obtuse, but, you know, letting people think whatever they want to think about a lyric. She might know what she means, but she didn’t feel like she needed to ram it down their throats. So maybe, because instrumental music is so hard to be successful with, I have this thing about being gettable. Even if I’m doing something weird or complex, I really want it to be gettable. So maybe I was applying some of that kind of thinking to our songwriting. But at a certain point, we came together and we found a common ground. Echo in the Valley, the last album we did, is full of songs we wrote together.
As a lifelong student of the banjo, are there still things that you find you’re learning about the instrument even today?
I would say that I’m more disappointed by the things that I haven’t been able to master. Yeah, I’m still learning, but I’m also always looking for new things to do. Teaching my banjo camps has kind of given me an impetus to want to show up with new ideas because, whenever I’m around banjo players, especially in a teaching role, I like to put some of my way of thinking into techniques and exercises that can be taught. Some of it I don’t quite know how to explain.
We have this virtual class, ever since we haven’t been able to have banjo camps in person, where we get together with a lot of the mahogany players, that’s the top class at the school, and when I get on, I like to show up with things to surprise them with and usually I’ve got something, so I guess I’m always digging around and finding little tidbits that interest me and I like passing them along.
What are you listening to these days?
Actually, I’m mostly listening to music when I put Juno to bed. We listen to some certain Joni Mitchell songs. He loves the albums Blue and Night Ride Home. We listen to Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter duet stuff. We listen to (Samuel) Barber’s Adagio for Strings. And suddenly, Juno, ever since RockyGrass (Festival), where I played with Sierra and did this first Bluegrass Heart concert, he wants to hear Sierra. So, we’ve been listening to her last record (25 Trips) – the one after the album that I produced – which I hadn’t really spent time with. I knew it was really good, but I just never got to it. So, we can listen to that almost every night. And it’s really, really good. I highly recommend it.