Bela Fleck: Heart and Soul

Dean Budnick on October 8, 2021
Bela Fleck: Heart and Soul

photo credit: William Matthews


“Bluegrass has been a big part of any music I’ve ever done,” explains Béla Fleck, whose work has also long spanned the classical, jazz and world-music realms. In 1989, the banjo player left New Grass Revival to focus on his new project, Béla Fleck and The Flecktones. He reveals, “I resisted putting any bluegrass into The Flecktones. I wanted it to be much jazzier and more modern, embracing a world of music that I hadn’t been able to play because I’d been playing bluegrass for so long. But I found, as time went on, that bluegrass was actually a very important part of The Flecktones’ music. That’s true of anything I’ve pursued, which is part of why I called this album My Bluegrass Heart. No matter what I think I am or want to be, I’m a bluegrass musician first and foremost.”

Even so, it’s been more than two decades since Fleck released a record directly devoted to the genre. My Bluegrass Heart follows 1988’s Drive and 1999’s The Bluegrass Sessions. Unlike those records—on which Fleck recorded with a core team of all-star players that included Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Mark Schatz and Jerry Douglas—the two-disc My Bluegrass Heart finds him collaborating with a range of personnel. While he still gathers his stalwarts for a few tracks—other than Rice, who had retired from performing prior to his passing in 2020—Fleck also welcomes David Grisman, Chris Thile, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland, Billy Contreras and many others.

Starting in September, Fleck will embark on a two-leg tour, with separate groups of musicians, in support of the record. The first roster will feature Cleveland, Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton. Then, beginning in late November, Fleck will be joined by Bush, Douglas, Duncan, Meyer and Sutton. Finally, on Jan. 7, a special show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium will bring together many of the musicians who appear on My Bluegrass Heart. (Another date may yet be added in an additional city.)

The name of the album not only reflects Fleck’s musical proclivities, but it also serves a nod to his longtime friend, musical partner and mentor Chick Corea, who called his 1976 record My Spanish Heart. (Corea gave Fleck his blessing to use the title before he passed away in February 2021). Fleck observes, “Spanish music was extremely important to him in the same way that bluegrass has been important to me. But even though he called that record My Spanish Heart, he wasn’t Spanish; he was Italian. His family had no connection to that world but it was central to who he was. I feel like that’s true for me with bluegrass. I didn’t grow up with this kind of music. I’m from New York City, and my family is Eastern European. My friends all laughed at me when I played it and yet it’s still central to who I am, no matter what I might have said over the years.”

What led you to record with multiple ensembles on My Bluegrass Heart, as opposed to a core band, like you used on Drive and The Bluegrass Sessions?

My philosophy when I record a bunch of music, even if it’s fairly diverse, is that I like to have the same people on the whole record. I think that provides cohesion. Even if the music is wildly different, hearing the same person playing all those different things provides continuity.

I knew Tony wasn’t going to be able to be on this album. He was still alive when I was recording, but he was done playing and I was really sad about that. So I thought, “Well, maybe I won’t do a record with the Drive/Bluegrass Sessions band—I’ll do something with a bunch of the new guys that I really love playing with or that are younger and interesting to me because I’ve never played with them.” I was thinking of people like Michael Cleveland, Cody Kilby and Dominick Leslie. So I put these guys together and we rehearsed a little bit and I thought, “This is great.” So we cut five tracks with those guys.

But then I had buyer’s remorse, if you will. I thought, “Why aren’t I playing with my peer group? These guys that I came up with are all still incredible.” Why wouldn’t I play with the Drive/Bluegrass Sessions guys too? Just because Tony can’t do it, am I going to throw out the baby with the bath water? So I talked to Abby [Washburn, Fleck’s wife and regular creative partner] about it and she said, “Well, why don’t you do both?” But I said, “You don’t understand. That’s not what I do. I do whole records with the same crew; that’s my thing.” And she said, “OK, sorry.” Then, I thought about it and I realized, “Well, she’s right.” So I apologized and then I booked some dates to record with what is basically the Drive band except for Edgar Meyer and Bryan Sutton.

After we did a few tracks, I was like, “Well, what’s it going to be? Two bands on the record with one band on one side and one on the other? Or maybe a double album? What am I going to do?” Then, I thought, “Why aren’t I recording with Chris Thile? I love Chris and he plays a big role in this music so why wouldn’t I?” Around that time, I met Billy Strings, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to go to the far reaches with Chris and Billy—who had never played together before—and do this jammy, wild stuff with those guys?”

So I did that and then Abby tapped me on the shoulder for a second time and pointed out that I didn’t have any women on the record. I was like, “Oh crap, unconscious bias strikes again.” So I realized that I had to fix that because I have a warm relationship with Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle. And I thought they were right up there with everybody else on the record. So I did some tracks with them.

At this point, it was clear that it was now a community record. Anything goes and the defining quality would be the instrumentation—that it was all for a bluegrass band. I have two other bluegrass records and calling them bluegrass is only a minor stretch—it depends on your perspective on bluegrass. But this was a record for a bluegrass band. It wasn’t the same band in any way but it was the same instruments and that would be the defining characteristic along with my writing and my banjo playing.

You mentioned that calling these records bluegrass albums “is only a minor stretch.” How conscious are you, these days, of pushing the boundaries of that term?

When people listen to the record, they’ll hear things that are clearly bluegrassoriented and things that are pushing to the edges of what is now thought of as bluegrass. When I did the Drive album, it was never considered anything but a bluegrass album and yet it had all of these influences from outside of the music that now are considered not so crazy. You hear them all the time, although nobody was playing stuff like that back then.

I’m not blowing my own horn. There was a whole team of people who were sort of pushing the envelope—that whole Drive group or Strength in Numbers or whatever you want to call it. Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas—all of these cats were pushing it.

I was part of that, and it has transformed the music. And that’s what is supposed to happen. Just as the generation before us transformed this music for us, we brought it to this other place. So a lot of things now fall under the bluegrass tent that might not have 30 years ago. It draws deeply from the roots of bluegrass, but it’s also not so restrained by those roots that it is fearful of outside ideas. It’s all seen through the lens of a bluegrass band and has the feel and the dance that bluegrass is supposed to have.

Quite a few of the tunes on My Bluegrass Heart have traditional elements, but my kind of bluegrass records have always been a little bit on the edge. I’ve always tried to push things forward. Even with something like “Charm School,” the feel of the verses and the melodies are right out of the Tony Rice bluegrass songbook; the song goes to a lot of places that are quite involved. And all the people that played on that song could reference Cold on the Shoulder, Manzanita, and all these records that pushed the edge of bluegrass, but eventually were considered to be well within the boundaries of bluegrass.

Can you talk a bit about Tony as an innovator and collaborator?

Tony was a triple threat. One thing is that he was a fantastic singer. You’ve got to go back and hear him when he was in full voice—go back and listen to the Manzanita record or “Old Home Place” with J.D. Crowe & The New South or Skaggs & Rice. You’ll hear this stark voice. Nobody had ever sung like that in bluegrass before.

Then, the next threat is his flat-picking, which he took to a new level, following Doc Watson and Clarence White. He incorporated his love of jazz and so forth, as well as a pure ability on acoustic guitar that has never been equaled. There are guys that can play fancier, but there was just something about his feel, sound and intensity.

The third threat—and maybe the most potent one—was his rhythm. A lot of times, you couldn’t tell because you wouldn’t always be able to hear him on a track, but you would know that the song was dancing like crazy. You’d go, “Wow, the banjo player’s playing great.” But, you might not realize it’s because of what Tony Rice was doing in the fabric of the music. He was playing the rhythm underneath that banjo and making everything happen for every member of the band.

Tony is the only guy I can think of who, whenever I did a session with him, the musicians would all come in and listen to his rhythm-guitar playing after he left, almost in secret. Since we couldn’t always hear it on the final record, we’d try to hear it while we were in the studio before it would get mixed. That’s why, on Bluegrass Sessions, I panned his guitar all the way to the right. Usually, you put the guitar in the middle because it’s fundamental to the music. But, it gets lost and it wipes out the other instruments. So I put it all the way to one side. That way you could hear everything he was doing; you can get a glimpse of it by listening to the right side of Bluegrass Sessions very closely.

I learned a lot from Edgar Meyer about how instruments can cancel each other out. Bluegrass is one of the hardest kinds of music to mix because you’ve got the guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle all in the same register and the bass overlaps with them, too. So how can you hear everybody at the same time? Do you make a big blend and not worry about hearing everybody? Well, on Drive and Bluegrass Sessions, I wanted to hear everyone who joined me because those were some of the greatest musicians playing that music.

So my mixing concept was to stick the dobro and the guitar all the way to the right and left. Then, the bass could be in the center and the banjo could be close to the center and it wouldn’t conflict with the bass because they’re in different registers. The mandolin and the fiddle could be kind of split halfway on either side and, all of a sudden, you could hear everything. It was all in three dimensions. I still stand by that and I find it very enjoyable, especially with headphones because you can feel everyone’s personalities coming from their spot all the way through the record. On this album, I did a lot of the same kind of panning, but I deliberately switched the pans for different groups.

What was the writing process like for this album? Did you hunker down and focus specifically on it?

I’m usually collecting tunes as the years go by. I don’t have a great way of storing them. So, if a song keeps showing back up under my fingers spontaneously, I’ll think, “Well, that must be a pretty good song because I remember it.” So I had a pile of tunes saved up.

It had been about 20 years since I’d done a bluegrass record, so I probably had 10-12 things that I thought were worth exploring. As I went along, I started writing more and I also started thinking about some other tunes that I had which you immediately wouldn’t think fit a bluegrass band. “Our Little Secret”—which I originally wrote for a chamber orchestra commission—is one where I thought, “You know, that would sound really good on bluegrass instruments. It’s not bluegrass, but it would sound good.” I had never recorded the piece before and it was burning a hole in my pocket, so I gave it a shot. And everyone was so great that they made it work. There are a few things like that.

Also, even though the songs were written, I was changing some of the arrangements right up until the end. The day before people would get there, I’d go, “There ought to be one more part” or “That ending is not good enough” or “What if the intro went like this?” So sometimes people would show up thinking that they knew the song and, all of a sudden, I’d hand them a couple of pages of tablature.

“Our Little Secret” is highly composed but it also has a lot of room for improvisation and feel playing. There’s a tune called “Round Rock” which is one of my favorites, and I kept wanting to add to it. We rehearsed it once, everybody had it down, and then, when they showed up, I had more. [Laughs.]

While that stuff is stressful for the musicians, it isn’t stressful to listen to. If there are more sections—and they’re all consonant or they all flow nicely—then it’s not a hardship for the listener. It’s actually kind of fun because you keep getting surprised when you think you know what the song is but there’s actually a little more to it. So I’m a fan of special endings, special interludes and things like that. Some of those would happen at the last minute when I was almost out of time. It’s like a fight-or-flight instinct that I also have a lot when I’m improvising, and I don’t know how I’m going to get out of something. And then, all of a sudden, something kicks in and I make a really good choice that I never would have thought of if I’d been composing.

In this case, I had these last minute composing bursts, which were kind of like fight or flight—“It’s my last chance, what was I really thinking? Can I get it out before the guys get here?”

I had limited time with the musicians and it was hard music. I did everything I could to make it easy for everybody but, at the same time, I want to combine this totally free, totally live, totally easy stuff to play over with these highly orchestrated sections. That makes for fun music. It’s like birds all landing and doing something together and then flying off into different directions.

Let’s talk about a few of the compositions, starting with “Boulderdash.”

On “Boulderdash,” I was just trying to write a simple, old-fashioned banjo tune. Someone like Don Reno could have written it. He wrote a lot of tunes with chords that move down in positions. There’s also a lot of J.D. Crowe influence. The bridge has a little bit of harmony in it, but it’s also got the thing that people in bluegrass do, where they take a position and move it around. There’s a Bill Emerson tune called “Cowboys and Indians,” and it reminds me a little bit of that as well. The way we ended up arranging it for the three banjos made it a lot more involved than how it originally started as an attempt at a relatively simple tune.

You’re joined on that one by Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny, which is something of a full-circle moment. Tony was a teacher to you early on. Later, you gave Noam some guidance. What did that entail?

Noam would check in with me. Not too long after he got his first banjo, he showed up in Chicago and his parents asked if he could meet me. So we hung out before soundcheck. That went on for a number of years—he would show up every year or two, and he would be way better each time. At one point, when he was in college in Urbana, he showed up before a Flecktones show and we spent the afternoon together.

So it was more like he’d come in for a burst and I’d show him what he wanted to know. Then, he’d come back a few years later, supercharged with a whole bunch more ability. We’ve always had a very open dialogue, and there was a certain point when I noticed that he was doing a lot of things I didn’t know how to do. And that has continued, which is exactly what should have happened.

How about “Strider?”

That one uses the Scruggs tuner. Earl Scruggs wrote a couple of novelty tunes on the banjo that involved retuning while he was playing. People would go crazy trying to figure out how he did it. For a while, he did it without any tricks. In fact, he was furious about some recordings he made, where he actually didn’t quite get back in tune and you can actually hear him tuning in the background. Apparently, they threw away the take where he got it right because the fiddle player didn’t play that good or something. Earl was angry about that for the rest of his life because that take wasn’t the one where he got it perfectly.

If you’re going to have a good banjo album, then there ought to be a tune that uses harmonics and there ought to be one that uses Scruggs tuners. So I asked myself: “How can I use harmonics in a way that is not typically done and how can I use Scruggs tuners in way that is not typically done?”

So I was trying to write something melodic and interesting with these tuners, and I found a different way to tune them that I had never seen anyone do before, where I raised the second string up to C and the third string down to G. When you find a little melody with the tuners then you’ve kind of got enough to go on. But, then, I thought it would be neat to add another tuner, so I added the first-string tuner as well.

There is one Scruggs tune where he uses the tuners and changes the tuning, and then plays the second part in a different tuning, which is what I do with “Strider.” So there’s a lot of tuning peg danger. What if the tuning peg doesn’t come back to the right place? How am I going to keep playing the song? Playing live is pretty stressful, but I finally figured out how to get that working.

The title “Strider” comes from reading the Lord of the Rings to my son Juno. “Tentacle Dragon” also comes from reading books to Juno.

The tune with the harmonics is “Charm School.” I was looking for a different way to use harmonics. And if you have too much time on your hands, then you might figure out that “C harm,” which is what I might have called the tune originally, is short for C harmonic. And then “School” was just thrown on top for the title.

“Charm School” features Billy Strings and Chris Thile, who are both animated players and individuals. What was the energy like in the room for that one?

It was exciting. I had rehearsed with Billy, but I couldn’t rehearse with Chris. He flew in that morning, and we were only going to have him for one day, during which we were going to do two of the hardest songs that I’ve ever recorded with anybody. So there was a sense of nervousness, but there was also trust in that Chris tends to deliver. It’s just what he does. We had practiced it with Billy, Royal Masat and Billy Contreras, so we had a rough arrangement and then Chris came in. It was already exciting before he got there. But, boy, it ratcheted up when he arrived. In fact, some of the takes sped up so much—because we were all so excited— that we couldn’t use them, even though they were really good takes.

Chris came straight from the airport and he recorded all day. We started recording at 10 a.m., and the other guys left at 9 or 10 p.m. At that point, I said to Chris, “I do have this one other tune.” And he said, “Well, do you have some good wine for afterward?” It turned out that I had a Brunello or maybe a Meursault that I’d saved. So we stayed up until 4 a.m. recording the duet that ends the record— the Ugandan psalm.

How about the fiddle tune medley “Hunky Dory?”

I had all these fiddle tunes sitting around that I hadn’t used for 30 years. As I mentioned, I’ll occasionally forget tunes that I’ve written and then they’re gone. So I thought, “What if I came up with a medley?” That way I could get a bunch of these tunes out of my hair so that I could write some new tunes. I took care of five or six tunes that way. And then I thought that it would be fun to play on the cello banjo because it’s such a cool instrument.

It also occurred to me to do all these tunes as duets because, typically, I have more duets and small groups on a record. Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to have people come and go mysteriously and then, at the very end of the song, everybody’s there all of a sudden.” I liked the shape of that. I also wanted to find keys for each tune that told a story. I eventually worked it out so that it all went somewhere else and then the keys lead you back to home in a cool way. I really liked that one a lot because it’s a unique arrangement and it shows off each of the musicians beautifully.

Speaking of showcasing musicians, you debuted your first My Bluegrass Heart touring band and some of the material at RockyGrass. How did it all translate to the live setting?

It was so much fun to play with this band because, for one thing, they’re all studio players and they like to refine stuff. I’d be the guy at rehearsals saying, “Do you guys mind playing that tune one more time?” And they’d say, “Yeah, let’s do it again.” After that, they’d say, “Let’s do it one more time.” They wanted to perfect it and—while I might’ve normally been afraid to ask them to do a song yet again— since they asked, I was just so thrilled.

That meant that, by the time we hit the stage at RockyGrass, we really sounded like a band. They had not played most of this music on the record. So they learned what other people had played and then they made it their own. That was a huge thing—especially for someone like Michael Cleveland, who is blind. He had to learn all this very complex, highly arranged fiddle stuff from these other songs and memorize it. But he was game, and he’s such a firecracker. When he starts playing, the whole band lights up. He plays with all his heart every single time, full out. So if you’re following him, you better play something good. There’s a lot of chemistry and everybody’s playing their hearts out. Sierra [Hull] is a detail-master genius, and an amazing thinker. Bryan [Sutton] is very rootsy and Justin [Moses] is covering all these instruments so well. I think it’s pretty special.

And once we start practicing with Jerry, Sam, Stuart, Edgar and Bryan, then that’s going to be exciting, too. We play Telluride together every year, but that band has not been out there. So, for a lot of people, that’s a special opportunity to see some of this music’s prime movers.

The nice thing about this record is that there are just so many options to put together different groups. We’ll have to rehearse because it’s not music that you can wing, but the cast is huge. I was amazed at how good it sounded at RockyGrass and how much of the music we got right on the very first crack. I’m super excited about what’s to come.