Echo of Success: Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn Visit GR with New Album

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. Photo by Jim McGuire

After their successful 2016 Grammy award-winning self-titled debut album, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn set to work on a follow-up. Released in October 2017, “Echo in the Valley” once again sees the couple showing off their skills with the banjo. The new album also shows off the pair’s collaborative instincts with nearly all of the tracks co-written by the husband and wife team.

Fleck and Washburn are on tour now in support of “Echo in the Valley” and will make a visit to St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 23.

GR|MAG spoke with Fleck to find out how this album differs in terms of the creative process from the previous album and what resulted from the pair’s different approach.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn

GR|MAG: Hi Béla, I hear you are coming to Grand Rapids this month. What can you tell me about the tour you and Abigail are currently doing?

Béla Fleck: One very exciting piece of it will be the very-pregnant state that Abby has attained! We are expecting our second, and she will be around 24 weeks into it, so – quite noticeable! She has to sing, and we will have to see if she wants to buck dance or save that for another time.

We’ll be playing music from our new “Echo in the Vally” CD, which has been out for five months or so.

GR|MAG: I read that you and Abigail approached “Echo in the Valley” a bit differently than the previous album – co-writing the songs together. Could you talk about that process compared to how you approached the first album and the process of working more directly together?

Béla Fleck: Yes, this time we really wanted the songs to reflect both of our points of view, and we wanted to see what we could create together in that regard.

GR|MAG: What instigated this decision?

Béla Fleck: It just felt that we needed to make a new statement and push the duo forward this time, especially since sophomore projects generally have an uphill fight. If we did everything we could think of to make the best and most representative project possible, we could feel really good about it. And we do!

GR|MAG: How do you think it influenced this album?

Béla Fleck: It’s an album of songs that we are deeply invested in that represent who we are and the time we are living in.

GR|MAG: How do you think Echo in the Valley benefitted from this approach?

Béla Fleck: It doesn’t sound like anything else, not even like our first album, even though the people and instruments are pretty much the same. It has its own signature.

GR|MAG: What kinds of challenges did working so closely together on this album present?

Béla Fleck: We had to work hard to come up with lyrics that we both liked. And that meant being honest when we couldn’t get behind the other’s ideas. Which if your musical partner is your spouse – it can be taken the wrong way. But as we started to complete songs that we both really dug, we felt like we were on to something, and that gave us the energy to keep on going forward.

GR|MAG: Has this opened up new creative avenues for you, in terms of your songwriting? Do you think it will change the way you work overall as you think about future projects and songs?

Béla Fleck: I don’t know that I’ll be writing songs with lyrics much in my life, but it was a great lesson in collaboration. And that will be a toolkit item.

GR|MAG: Do you expect to continue creating albums together and to continue co-writing?

Béla Fleck: Absolutely.

GR|MAG: I read part of the inspiration behind your first album together was having a child. How has working together more influenced your family and you’re on the road/off the road relationship? Is there more or less of a balancing act that needs to be done?

Béla Fleck: It’s unusual, but somehow it’s worked for us. Now that Juno is nearly 5, and a baby nearly here, we’ll have to reassess how much touring is appropriate. But we have loved doing it, and it is not over.

GR|MAG: After the success of your first album, was there any intimidation or concern as you put together the second album, in terms of trying to live up to something or to stay true to something? Or did that factor into the decision to do something different by co-writing the album together?

Béla Fleck: Between our life experience of being parents together and surviving the election, we had a lot to work with. But yes, there was some pressure to do something special.

GR|MAG: This album has some political links to it. Specifically, the songs “Over the Divide” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” Could you share how world events shaped your goals and the outcome of this album? And why is it important to you to give people hope?

Béla Fleck: “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” came out of watching my mom being so depressed after the election. I know a lot of folks that felt that way and I wanted to encourage them to look for the positive. I came up with the chorus, and Abby had huge contributions to completing the song.

“Over the Divide” has to do with a true story Abby heard about an Austrian Sheepherder whose family had been ferried to safety during the holocaust. He would cross the border into Hungary using roads only a sheepherder would know, and ferry Syrian refugees across to safety. And he sang songs and yodeled while driving. It was pretty irresistible!

GR|MAG: Has performing these songs helped buoy your spirits over the past year?

Béla Fleck: It has certainly felt good and right and honest. And just mentioning here – our show is not overly or overtly political. Music is the primary offering. We love to make a whole room full of people feel warm and positive, and we judge our shows on whether we were able to achieve that.

GR|MAG: Is there anything else that you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Béla Fleck: We’ll be choosing a local nonprofit in each town we play in to donate our merchandise proceeds to. We usually pick environmental organizations, support the arts, or children’s non-profits. We will also be having a banjo raffle, so folks can take a shot a winning a banjo while helping support local heroes. See you soon!

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn tickets are $45 and $50 and can be purchased by calling St. Cecilia Music Center at 616-459-2224 or visiting the box office at 24 Ransom Ave. NE. Tickets can also be purchased online. A post-concert party with a cash bar will be offered to all ticket-holders.

*Main photo by Jim McGuire