Béla Fleck brings his bluegrass heart to Mass for multiple dates, talks new collaborative project
There are very few legitimate virtuosos in music, but Béla Fleck is one of them. While most of these virtuosos are affiliated with the guitar, Fleck does his thing with the banjo. The New York City native is an innovator, a technical pioneer, and an ambassador of the instrument. He’s also been a face of American bluegrass and jazz fusion for over 50 years.
Fleck has a new album, My Bluegrass Heart, that’s coming out via both Renew Records and BMG on September 10 with a ton of special guests. As part of his upcoming tour in support of the album, he’ll perform at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston on September 25 and at the FreshGrass Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art the following day.
Fleck and I recently spoke about why he wanted to make the new album, why he got a bunch of musicians involved, how it centers around community, and getting excited about going back on tour.
You’ve talked about how My Bluegrass Heart is a return for you to the style that you’ve been originally known for. With that being said, what made you want to come back to your roots and make this album?
When you grow up in the bluegrass world, you always have an allegiance to that music, a love for that music and you know you’re going to come back to it over and over again. For me, it was never a question of whether I was going to do another bluegrass album or not, it was just about when. The timing just wasn’t working for a lot of reasons and one of them is that I always felt like if I made a bluegrass record Tony Rice needed to be on it, and he was on my last two bluegrass records. He was really losing his ability to play on a downward spiral, it was very hard for me to imagine doing it without him. Also, something rough happened with our family around this time and one of our kids had a very close call in the hospital.
It was very traumatic, he ended up turning out to be fine but after this experience I suddenly found myself wanting to do this bluegrass record. It’s sort of a combination of things, it’s sort of touching base with who you are when crazy stuff happens and another part of it is that I could do it at home at my studio I have in the basement. It wouldn’t involve any traveling so I could be close to the family at that time so it was a combination of those things.
I’m glad to hear that your kid is doing well after that close call in the hospital. The album has a lot of tracks with 19, so what inspired this prolific output? Are a lot of these songs ones you had in the vault for a while, or is this all completely fresh material?
It was never intentional to have so many songs, in fact I was just going to make a record, but I had trouble deciding who to do it with. I have some old friends who I’ve made some pretty special albums with and Tony Rice is part of that group. There are also all of these great new players on the scene that I’ve never gotten to work with and so I started thinking about wanting to do something with all of these young players, I say young even though some of them are in their 40s. I started experimenting with this group, we recorded some stuff, and while I loved it, I was thinking to myself, Well, why aren’t I recording with my old friends? And then I recorded a few things with them. Then I started thinking about doing something with Chris Thile and this Billy Strings kid who’s been getting pretty hot.
Then I added a few more tracks with them, and then my wife Abigail tapped me on the shoulder and said, No girls are on this record, so I reached out to a couple of my favorite musicians, Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle, and we did some tracks with them. At that point, it had become 19 songs.
How did you go about getting all of these other musicians involved? Was anything done remotely? Or were you all in the same place at the same time recording these tracks?
This was all in the same place at the same time and we made these tracks just like we used to do it. It was in my basement and I have enough studio equipment so we set it up in a way that people could be playing simultaneously and it all happened before COVID-19 struck, so this has been in the can for a while. A lot of times, I’ll record with people and then we’ll put it away until we’re about to tour, then we’ll finish the record and put it out. This is sort of like that except for a year and a half of pandemic craziness giving us more time to work on it. Everything was played live simultaneously and, of course, I edited it and chose the best stuff but it was always a live experience.
You can definitely notice while listening to the album that there’s a lot going on, I’ve really enjoyed it. In your opinion, do you think there’s anything that sets My Bluegrass Heart apart from the other albums that you’ve done, either solo or through collaboration? What do you think makes it stand out?
For me, this is a community record. I can’t say that I’ve ever done a community record in the bluegrass world. I did a couple with the Flecktones where we invited like-minded musicians to play with us and had a huge cast, but not this big and not this many people. I think I’m gonna look back on this being something that I was very resistant to in the beginning and now I’m extremely proud that we did it that way. I feel like I write a lot of diverse kinds of music even if it’s a roughly good fit within the bluegrass umbrella and the way I get cohesiveness is by using the same musicians for all these diverse kinds of tracks.
That’s how I’ve done my albums for many, many, many years and my other bluegrass albums were exactly like that with there being one band that plays all the music but the music is pretty diverse. I was sort of against the idea of having different people on different tracks but I like the idea of a band’s sound so again; I resisted the idea, but now that I’ve turned the ship in a different direction I’m kind of thrilled with it because it includes so many people that I love in music. It’s almost like a love letter to bluegrass and the bluegrass instrumentalists for me who has been a participant and an observer for so many years. It shows that there’s this incredible community of amazing musicians from people in their 60s and 70s down to people in their 20s. The music is thriving, people are pushing it to new places while playing the old stuff and playing the new stuff, it’s beautiful.
It definitely is. What are your thoughts on these upcoming shows at Berklee and at Fresh Grass? Are you more excited than usual about going back on tour after such a long time off the road? Does it feel different this time around?
It really does. This touring group has done one show so far, we played at the RockyGrass Bluegrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado and I still can’t believe that was the first show. I’m thrilled to see what this group is going to turn into by the time we get to Massachusetts because everybody was so on their game, burning it up and now we’re going to start playing music every night. We’re really settling into it together and we’re going to pod up on the tour bus and travel. It’s where bands turn into families and this is a new group with Sierra Hull on mandolin, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Mark Schatz on bass, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Justin Moses playing all of the other instruments.
It’s not a group that played all together on the record. In fact, one of the great things about the record is that there are so many people on it I can pick and choose different combinations to go out and perform with. This is sort of a composite dream band, they’re all on the record but this actual group never played on the same track. It’s neat to see, they learned everything from all 19 tracks and other stuff too. They just own it, it’s amazing and I can’t wait to see where we’re going to get to.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The Providence Journal, The Newport Daily News, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, New Noise Magazine, Flood Magazine and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.