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Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn Make Touring A Family Affair

Banjoist Bela Fleck is a 15-time Grammy award winner, and has collaborated with the likes of Chick Corea, Dave Matthews, and Earl Scruggs. Abigail Washburn’s voice and emerged as part of the all-female powerhouse string band, Uncle Earl, and has two solo albums to her credit. They are also husband and wife, and have decided to combine their talents and head out on the road for a tour. They perform tonight at McGlohon Theater. They spoke to WFAE Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt about how they work together, and they came together in the first place.

Kevin: Bela, I read that the first time that you heard one of Abigails CD’s it caused you to drive so fast that you got pulled over and had to walk the line. Is that true?

Fleck: Absolutely true. We were at a gathering with a bunch of musicians in Nashville and Abby gave me a copy of her CD. And so I got in the car, and I had this CD, and I started driving home from the party, and I started really getting into it. I was driving faster and faster, and pretty soon, the lights started going. I got pulled over, walked the line, and was set free.

Kevin: So was that the first time that you met, at that party?

Washburn: We met for the first time actually at a square dance in Nashville. Bela was playing the banjo, and I was dancing. We were actually both in other relationships at the time so nothing much came of it. But I think we were both fancied that we both met at a square dance for the first time.

Fleck: And then my relationship ended at a certain point in time, and all of a sudden she was free, so I just started chasing her. I just called her and tried to reach her. I think I called her 15 times one day. It was pretty wacky.

Washburn: I thought it was pretty creepy.

Fleck: Yeah. It was some weird behavior. And it wasn’t voluntary, it was just one of those crazy things. I just went after her, and I haven’t done that, ever. And I’m still amazed that it worked.

Washburn: What do you know? Now it’s been almost 10 years and we have a baby.

Kevin: Abigail, you wanted to be a lawyer, and work to improve US and China relations. Many might find that a far cry from singing and playing the banjo.

Washburn: It is a far cry. I had studied to go to Chinese law school. I had passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, which is the HSK, the Chinese equivalency exam, and I was going to go to China and go to law school. And the summer before I left, I was lucky to be at a party with my then boyfriend who was a bluegrass musician, and somebody put on a record of Doc Watson. And it just really blew my mind. I thought it was really gorgeous. I had been waiting to hear something that had the sound of America that reached into the eternal, the ancient, the universal.

And I think when I heard Doc Watson singing and playing Shady Grove, I just really felt it and heard it and thought to myself it would be really cool to bring something like the banjo over and be able to share that with my Chinese friends. And so before I left I learned to play some banjo and went on a big road trip. I went to the IBMA – the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Kentucky. While I was at the IBMA – it was sort of a mystical moment where I ran into a bunch of young women who were playing music. They asked me if I would play with them, and I knew about four songs at that point. So I sat down and I played with them, and at the end of the jam I was offered a record deal in Nashville, Tennessee.  

Kevin: Can you describe how the husband and wife dynamic is different when it comes to touring and preparing for shows than if you were on tour with another artist or group?

Fleck: Well, packing up on tour now means figuring out what baby stuff to bring. We’ve got this big rubber duck that we’ve had in all kinds of dressing rooms and backstage areas and that’s got to have a place.

Washburn: Yeah, it’s really a family affair. All the way from who is going to change the baby’s diaper to what the set list is going to be tonight.

Fleck: It’s a lot more intimate because we are husband and wife. Although I guess with some bands I guess that can be true too.

Washburn: This morning I was at the hotel and I ran into some different couples that had come to the show, and each one of them mentioned that it was so fun to see a married couple on stage because they could really related to a lot of the ways we interacted, and it reflected on them – you know, a lot of the jokes that they have between each other, or what are the things that they do with each other.

Fleck: We don’t try to be too careful about how we are on stage. We’re not trying to be too different than we are, or present some personas. And it seems like people find it refreshing.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn perform tonight at McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square.