Can a three-finger bluegrass-styled guy be the perfect match for a clawhammer lady? Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have been set on proving that their stylistic differences complement instead of clash, and have been doing a darn good job of it along the way. The Nashville couple recently completed a mini-residency titled “Circle Round Home,” that stopped at three local venues, raising money for a different charity each night. I was fortunate enough to catch the pair at the Family Wash—an always intimate venue made even more so with a standing room only crowd. The night was in support of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and was also a celebration of the duo’s release of their new album, Echo In The Valley, on Rounder Records.
Banjos of all sizes came across the stage and were the only instruments that the pair needed. The duo helped us keep up with a quick lesson on banjo types, styles, and sounds. There were in fact three stars of the evening: Fleck, Washburn, and a huge stand-up bass-styled banjo that was originally used by a female vaudeville group. Heck, the duo even gave away a ukulele banjo to a lucky fan because they “couldn’t think of anything happier than a banjo.” Fleck and Washburn created a set list that set them apart from their recognized roles of banjo royalty–letting their differences shine while also showcasing the complexity of their combined works.
Three-finger and clawhammer are not usually combined, and the pair has done an incredible job of adding the sounds into their originally solo efforts. Washburn led the way on vocals with her soulful voice that always carries a touch of nostalgia. Choosing at one point to completely unplug, Washburn came to the center of the room for an a cappella version of their new song, “Come All You Coal Miners,” the whole room hanging on every word. Later, Washburn put the spotlight on Fleck for a fiery solo acoustic performance which she said was her husband at his best. Demonstrating the range of his instrument, Fleck took the audience on a journey from toe-tapping bluegrass to intricate, near orchestral sounds.
Separately, Fleck and Washburn are masters of their instruments; together they are a banjo-welding force. Belting out their raucous post-election response song “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” inspired the audience to clap along, while their four-year-old son’s favorite, “Shotgun Blues (or “the one about the shotgun” as their son calls it), had heads nodding along with the creaking, scratching, and ominous tune. Leading a call and response on their bluegrass-gospel inspired “Devine Bell,” the floor shook with stomping and clapping from the crowd. Whether picking, singing, or dancing, Washburn makes the depressive feel lighter, almost optimistic, while Fleck’s infectious playing makes it impossible not to toe-tap. Melding the strong, driving picking from Fleck with Washburn’s rhythmic strumming, the duo created a lushness that one might not expect from just two banjos.
Between the standing ovation and frequent roars of applause, it was clear that the audience agreed with their host’s assessment of the happiness-inducing qualities of a banjo. Employing their craft for a cause close to their hearts, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn gave the Family Wash crowd a night a celebration of banjo geekdom made cool.