Fleck and Washburn perform together as husband and wife
When Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn take the Snow Park Amphitheater stage Thursday night, the audience will be treated to a lesson in harmonies.
Not only will the husband and wife play their own style of Americana and roots music, but they will do so in a harmonious and collaborative way that only few couples can, Washburn told The Park Record.
“It feels like we’re sitting in one big living room and hanging out,” Washburn said with a laugh during a phone call from Middlebury College in Vermont.
That was as surprising for the two when they started playing together as a duo four years ago as it was for many of their audience members.
“I know a lot of people who know one way to keep peace in the coupledom is to not work with each other,” Washburn said. “Béla and I didn’t know, even though we did
know we could work in a group environment because of our work with the Sparrow Quartet, but even that wasn’t easy, because we have different ways of creating things.”
While Washburn is more pensive and thinks internally, her husband is, she says, “very alpha and has a ton of ideas.”
“While there was a lot of miscommunication in that setting, we learned a lot,” she said. “So, when we came together for this duo, we had already been through the process of how to be creative with each other.”
The impetus of the two writing together and going out on the road was that Washburn found out she was pregnant with their son, Juno.
“Béla and I didn’t want to be apart,” she said. “So, we thought if there was ever a time to play together, it was now.”
The energy the two convey as a duo in concert also surprised them both.
“Béla isn’t much of a talker when he’s on stage, but when we got together, we both found we loved not only talking with each other, but with the audience in a comfortable way,” Washburn said. “I think that’s resonated with a lot of people.”
Part of the key is that the couple has a profound and basic respect for each other’s differences.
“I think of Béla as an incredible technician, a maker and arranger of patterns and a mathematician of sort,” Washburn said. “I think of him as a collector of bits he has gathered over the years. He’s a true inspiration and such a hard worker.”
She, on the other hand, is more in touch with the raw soulfulness of things.
“That’s not always a musical pursuit,” she said. “It may be a psychological one or an emotional one. But I’m always thinking about how I can open my heart to feel things. I want to learn enough technique to serve the soul of something that I’m hearing.”
That approach, and the fact that Washburn is a singer, has challenged Fleck.
“It’s because he hasn’t spent a lot of times with a singer and become a composer of sorts on the spot,” she said.
On the other hand, Washburn has learned a lot from Fleck.
“He teaches me some complicated tunes, which brings him a lot of satisfaction,” she said. “I want to be a part of that. And that has brought me satisfaction because I get to study with Béla as a friend, as my husband and my teacher.”
During the interview, Washburn said she was currently at Middlebury College to get some media training in Chinese at the school’s summer Chinese school.
“I speak Chinese, but it’s not good enough for [press] interviews,” she said. “I actually first felt that way when I started doing interviews in English, but since I’m now, I’m quite comfortable doing English interviews, so, I need to learn to be comfortable in Chinese.”
Washburn said her love affair with China took a while to develop.
“The first time I went to China was simply out of curiosity and the desire to explore the world after I saw a poster at college,” she said. “I spent my summer after my first year of college in Shanghai and two other cities.
“In all honestly, I didn’t love my first experience,” Washburn confessed. “It felt very polluted and I felt feverish and sick the whole time.”
Adding to the stress was the fact that she couldn’t speak Chinese very well.
“When I got home, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back,” she said.
Two men changed her mind.
“In my room at my parents home in Minnesota, I have two posters — one is of Gandhi and one is of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Washburn said. “Every time I would go to sleep or wake up, I would see these two great men, and I was struck with the notion one morning that I had been disenchanted with 1.3 billion people on the face of this planet and that’s probably not a good thing.”
So, Washburn felt she needed to do something about that.
“I went back, and all the things that I had problems with were still there, but as I learned Chinese, I started seeing deeper into the culture,” she said. “I met an amazing old lady who insisted that I call her Old Lady Wong, who became my tutor. She and her husband would fix me dinner and she ended up sharing her stories about her life and the world through her and her heart. And I decided I would spend the rest of my life bridging our two countries.”
In the winter of 2011, Washburn embarked on her Silk Road tour that followed the road traveled by Marco Polo.
The tour, supported by the U.S. Embassy and the Chinese International Center for Exchange, was also generated by Washburn’s desire to introduce America’s roots music to China.
“I stated playing the banjo as a response to my intensive Chinese studies,” Washburn said. “I was dating a guy who was a bluegrass musician and while I enjoyed the music, it wasn’t until someone put on some Doc Watson at a party and that old time Appalachian sound pulled me in.
“I just fell in love with it and found that [while] America is a young country, the music has such ancient ties,” she said. “I love sharing that with my friends in China that obviously has an incredible culture they draw from every day.”
Park City Institute’s St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights Concert Series will present husband and wife, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn at Deer Valley’s Snow Park Amphitheater on Thursday, July 28, at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $72 and can be purchased by visiting http://www.bigstarsbrightnightsconcerts.org.