Banjo maestro Béla Fleck started his professional music career in bluegrass music, and though he has swept through many other regions of contemporary music over the years – jazz, funk, classical, and world music among them – at heart, he still retains a special fondness for the sound of bluegrass banjo. And he has a new release and tour in 2021 that celebrates it, My Bluegrass Heart.
Despite being a serious student and aficionado of the playing Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe, Béla’s sort of grass has a different type of flavor, blending in elements of the many stylistic adventures he has traversed during a 45 year career. It’s still primarily three-finger picking, with some single-string deviations, but the melody and harmony of the music he writes encompasses a wider range of sounds.
We all saw it during his time with New Grass Revival, when a fresh faced young Béla wowed us all with stunning runs and tasteful accompaniment behind the singing of John Cowan and Sam Bush. He expanded the limits of bluegrass banjo on his classic Drive album in 1988, recorded with fellow trailblazers Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Stuart Duncan, and again with The Bluegrass Sessions in 1999 with a similar cast, also including vocalists like Ricky Skaggs, Tim O’Brien, and John Hartford.
Of course these projects had been interspersed between records with The Flecktones, his own classical compositions, work with The Sparrow Quartet, collaborations with Chick Corea, Edgar Meyer, and Tony Trischka, and solo projects.
Even with these deviations, Béla has retained a solid core of admirers in the bluegrass world, among banjo pickers in particular, and his sporadic returns to his roots are genuinely celebrated by his followers.
Simply put, Béla has taken the banjo places that Earl Scruggs never imagined, and played it before audiences who might never have heard it otherwise, who had no appreciation or even willingness to consider bluegrass music. I recall even meeting one man who was horrified and disappointed to discover after being a fan of Béla’s jazz and funk music with The Flecktones, that he also played bluegrass on his banjo.
But as Fleck has said…
“I don’t come from the South, and I always felt like there were people who were more truly focused on doing that bluegrass thing really well. What I tended to want to do more was expand the banjo’s role and look for new things to do with it. Despite that, I was always a bluegrass guy first and foremost. That was certainly the root of my musical soul.”
This year, he lays out another all-star alliance for a set of new bluegrass and bluegrass-flavored tunes, featuring a new generation of youthful string pioneers who grew up on Béla Fleck records. There are some other veterans here on My Bluegrass Heart, like David Grisman, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Mark Schatz, and Tony Trischka, but many are of today’s class of enfant terribles – Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Billy Strings, Justin Moses, and Billy Contreras. Several established artists can also be found, among them Michael Cleveland, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, Mark Schatz, and Chris Thile.
Fleck says not to expect Foggy Mountain Banjo on this two-disc set, but a modern interpretation of what the ensemble can produce.
“This is not a straight bluegrass album, but it’s written for a bluegrass band. I like taking that instrumentation, and seeing what I can do with it – how I can stretch it, what I can take from what I’ve learned from other kinds of music, and what can apply for this combination of musicians, the very particularly ‘bluegrass’ idea of how music works, and what can be accomplished that might be unexpected, but still has deep connections to the origins.”
A first listen is available today, in the form of Charm School, where Béla is supported by Chris Thile on mandolin, Billy Strings on guitar, Billy Contreras on fiddle, and Royal mast on bass.
There will be a pair of My Bluegrass Heart tours this year, in September and December, the first with Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton, and the second with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Bryan Sutton. The tour will conclude at The Ryman in Nashville on January 7, 2022 with the whole Hee-Haw gang. Tickets for many of these shows are available now online, and more dates are still to be added.