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Album Review: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

It is a major event whenever Bela Fleck has a new album released, and Abigail Washburn has had her own series of successful albums. So when these two artists, viewed by many as the First Couple of Banjo, release a joint album, expectations are sure to be raised even higher. Perhaps unreasonably high.  This CD easily meets and, for me, exceeds those high expectations.  This is an album that mixes a fresh look at old-time standards (“Working on the Railroad”, “Am I Born to Die”), murder ballads (“Pretty Polly” and “Shotgun Blues”), gospel (“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”), some original tunes (“Ride to You,” “New South Africa,” among others), and even two short pieces from Bela Bartok. After more than a week of steady listening, I think the album merits what I think is the highest compliment: it gets better with successive listens.

The music and the liner notes have a sweet family focus, with a dedication to their 18month-old son Juno and multiple references to Abigail’s grandmother June and other family members.  The music bears an intimacy and familiarity developed from years of playing together, including a successful concert tour in 2013. The album was actually recorded in their basement while Bela and Abigail stayed closer to home during Juno’s early months.

For the opening song, “Railroad,” Abigail notes that this song that has been sung to children in successive generations of her family. The version here of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is cast in a minor key, giving it a plaintive sound, a significant change for this familiar song.  The Bartok selections are made up of two children dances based on folk tunes. They seem ideally suited for banjo and the arrangement is a masterful blend of Bela’s and Abigail’s playing styles. “Banjo Banjo” continues the family theme with the liner notes revealing that the couple co-wrote the piece on the day that Abigail first felt Juno kick while she was pregnant. “Banjo Banjo” is one of my favorite pieces because of the tasteful blend of the two banjos.  Their banjos are so tightly intertwined that it is difficult to tell who is playing which part at times. (Abigail usually has the left channel and Bela has the right channel on my system.) There are marvelous arpeggio scales where each banjo plays a pair of notes to build a seamless phrase. “Banjo Banjo” is one tune that sounds better with each play.

More needs to be said about the banjo playing. The arrangements are fresh and musical. While Bela occasionally throws in his signature virtuoso riffs, his playing never really overpowers that of Abigail. In fact, her playing is strong and confident on this album. And the arrangement and performances are actually more about making music than about banjos. In fact, I think it is easy to forget that there are no other instruments besides banjos making the music on this CD. This is due, in part, to the variety of banjos used on the recording.

There are seven banjos used on the recordings, and the selection of the banjos seems perfectly matched for each tune. The liner notes document the banjos used on each track.  Most publicity has been focused on the “Missing Link” banjo made by Gold Tone for Bela. It is a low-voiced banjo tuned to C rather than G. Bela’s Gibson Masterone Style 75 and Abigail’s Ome Jubilee are featured on many cuts.  A cello banjo, uke banjo and bass banjo, all made by Gold Tone, are also featured on the album. On “Little Birdie,” a new song written by the duo, Abigail plays a fretless banjo made by Jordan McConnell. The banjos are featured on several photos in the liner notes (along with a Cremona-inspired minstrel banjo made by Dan Knowles).

All of my talk of the banjo playing may lead one to think that this is an album of instrumentals, but that is not the case. There are 9 songs and 3 instrumentals. Abigail’s singing is strong as always, somehow combining power and tenderness as needed by the song. And Bela sings with Abigail on a few songs, including “Railroad” and “What’cha Gonna Do.” There is some humor and, perhaps, poetic justice that Abigail follows “pretty Polly” with her own composition, “Shotgun Blues,” in which the female has the upper hand in a murder ballad.

In many ways, I see this latest album as a natural next step in Abigail Washburn’s musical evolution, from Uncle Earl to her duo work with Ben Sollee and later Kai Welch, her solo albums of original and old-time tunes, and the fine work of the Sparrow Quartet. I think I see more of Abigail’s influence in the shape and content of this CD than Bela’s. But it is difficult to assign a label or category to this album.

  • The album has old-time roots with fresh interpretations.
  • The album has singer-songwriter selections with strong Americana roots.
  • The album has lots of banjos, but it is easy to forget that there are only banjos because the arrangements and playing are so strong.
  • The album has music arranged for a duo that speaks with one blended voice.
  • The album has past family memories woven into the music mixed with the love and promise of a new generation represented most clearly by the photo of cherubic Juno holding a banjo uke.

This is a strong offering from two very fine artists that will appeal to a wide range of audiences and to banjo players, especially. Indeed, as one Amazon reviewer noted, this is an album for people who think they do not like banjos.

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amazon.com/author/dbrooks
Playing Since: 1964
Experience Level: Purty Good

dbrooks has made 57 recent additions to Banjo Hangout 

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[Teaching] [Jamming] [Helping]

Occupation: Systems Manager

Gender: Male
Age: 70

My Instruments:
Vega Longneck (1927 pot and 1967 neck) purchased in 1969 from Thom Haile, Haskell Haile's brother. Tom was a stringed-instrument repair expert at Shackleton's, a Louisville music store landmark.

John C. Haynes Bay State Model 300 A-scale banjo
Bay State Model 318 banjo (both 1890s)
Bay State Model 352 with recent neck

Bart Reiter Regent A-scale (2001)
Bart Reiter Tubaphone (2001)

Prust Tackhead fretless
Bell Boucher fretless

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Pete Seeger
Doc Watson
Dan Levenson
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Stairwell Sisters
Adam Hurt
Laura P. Schulman
Brendan Doyle and Maxine Gerber (on Mark Simos' CDs)
Reel Time Travelers
John Hartford
Uncle Earl
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Created 3/11/2004
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I grew up in Bardstown, KY, the location of My Old Kentucky Home and the Stephen Foster Story, an outdoor summer musical drama. I was lucky enough to meet Mike Lawrence, the banjo player for "the drama' in 1964 or so, and spent much of that summer with him. He taught me to fingerpick the guitar (Saturday Night Shuffle and Freight Train) and to play a little Bluegrass banjo (Ballad of Jed Clampett and Cripple Creek). We spent many afternoons in front of My Old Kentucky Home where I played guitar back-up to his banjo playing. Thank you, Mike, for those life-long gifts. Fifteen years later, I returned from college to play the banjo for the Stephen Foster Story. I was even in a black-face minstrel show with E.P. Christy, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones in the Stephen Foster Story -- a claim that cannot be made by many. I played guitar and banjo through high school and college (the Vietnam years) and met some wonderful folks. In graduate school, I started a family and spent less time with the instruments. This finally led to a 15-20 year period where I played maybe 2-3 times a year. About 4-5 years ago, I got the neck reset and refretted on my Martin 00-17, and my guitar playing was revived. While waiting for the guitar work to be done, I picked up my Vega and clearly heard it ask me to play it clawhammer style. I found a Ken Perlman book I had bought years ago for this very day, and the journey began. I slowly learned the clawhammer technique and began to pick up tunes. In 2004, I had a hallway conversation with Dan Levenson at the IBMA meeting in Louisville that led to two summer workshops with him and some degree of reengineering of my clawhammer technique. I derive daily satisfaction from my playing and from the learning I still experience and enjoy.

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