Banjo music saved Abigail Washburn from a life of lawyering.
She was offered her first record deal after a bluegrass-festival jam session in which she’d trotted out all four songs that she knew. That led to a stint with the all-female alt-country group Uncle Earl, including an album produced by rock legend and mandolin obsessive John Paul Jones.
Washburn’s husband is also a banjo player; they met at a square dance where he was in the band. The attraction was mutual and immediate, and you can still sometimes find the John Coltrane of the five-string banjo playing square dances in Nashville, Tennessee.
His name, by the way, is Béla Fleck.
Is Washburn living a charmed life?
Reached at home in Music City, where she’s just coaxed her infant son into an afternoon nap, the 36-year-old musician knows just how to answer that question.
“I would say so!” she says, laughing. “I feel very, very lucky. I’ve chosen really interesting stuff to try, and then every time I walk through a door into an interesting new place other doors open, and I keep going through them. And I keep having pretty magnificent luck, meeting wonderful people and having really meaningful stuff to do.”
Who could ask for anything more—especially when the “meaningful stuff” has now expanded to include touring with Fleck and baby Juno?
Never mind that the banjo duet is not exactly conventional concert fare. That’s just one more thing for this hyperaccomplished couple to master.
“I guess we always hoped that someday it would feel right to tour as a duo, even though it was a strange combination,” Washburn reveals. “But something I’ve learned from Béla, certainly, is that you can make beautiful music out of anything, if you’ve got the ingenuity to do it.
“I learned that for the first time when we worked together in the Sparrow Quartet, which was both of us on banjo, a fiddle, and a cello,” she adds. “A lot of those instruments, the main part of their range is in the same place, so we had to be very creative so that each instrument could be heard. That’s when I first started learning that even if you have two instruments that have the same range and that don’t usually play together, you can make a beautiful sound.”
So far, only a few hints of that sound have been released into the wilds of YouTube: some feature Washburn, sans banjo, vocalizing in a wilder and more free fashion than she has in the past. Others find her singing in Mandarin, which she speaks fluently, while Fleck conjures up the silvery sound of the Chinese pipa through his rapid-fire single-string picking. It’s impressive stuff, and a record is in the works.
“We’re keeping it to two banjos and vocal, live,” Washburn says. “That is our commitment. We don’t know of another album out there that is just two banjos and vocal, so we need to do it—and that is what we do with our lives, so there is going to be no broader perspective.
“It’s a range of material that pushes each of us,” she continues. “Some of it is songs that I started that Béla is finishing with me, and some of it is old traditional songs that we’ve always loved, and then some of it pushes me in new directions with the Chinese material I’ve always wanted to explore.”
Her charmed life, it seems, continues.
Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck play the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (May 10).