Béla Fleck in Carnegie Hall? Be still My Bluegrass Heart!

Béla Fleck took the Carnegie stage and brought that hallowed hall to a place I am sure it has never quite been before. Smiley, tie-dyed festivarians joined the bejeweled Manhattan proper to celebrate something undeniably near and dear to America’s heart: bluegrass music. That night, it was presented in the finest hall in all the land and played perfectly, proudly, and straight from the heart by Béla’s multigenerational troupe of string-gunner all-stars that he curated for his recently-released double-album, My Bluegrass Heart. Launched from the historic Flatt and Scruggs’ first-ever-bluegrass-concert at Carnegie Hall sixty years prior, Fleck’s January 9 performance marked another notch in the arc of the Hall’s history, and another peak in Fleck’s ever-escalating career. Indeed, it planted a marker in the musical genre, itself, just as his new Grammy-nominated album has.

Béla did not just waltz onto the Carnegie stage in an overgrown way to show off his bluegrass chops. Far from it. He has been orbiting through different musical genres for decades, starting in bluegrass then going outbound to visit little worlds where he not only expertly inserted bluegrass flare, but also picked up foreign musical phrases that he then made his own. The Enchantment with Chick Corea; Throw Down Your Heart; and his concertos along with his Grammy wins in myriad categories illustrate this point. He has rounded the bases of many other sounds and with his new album, he charges across his home plate of bluegrass.  

Béla’s My Bluegrass Heart showcases where he has been and what he has learned. It consists of all original bluegrass compositions that draw from Béla’s journeys outside the genre, and the many different facets within it. Significantly, My Bluegrass Heart also showcases the elder statesmen in the business, such as Bela’s long-time buddies Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Mark Schatz, alongside the younger phenoms who are taking up the mantle, including Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Michael Cleveland, and Billy Strings. They were all wonderfully on display in Béla’s Carnegie show, along with Tony Trischka and Justin Moses. All swapped spots to create different iterations of the ensemble per song, before all coming together as one incredible band. 

Goosebumps galore as Béla, Sam, Jerry, Stuart, and Edgar opened with Blue Mountain Hop, a fitting touchback to Béla’s Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2, The Bluegrass Sessions: the sequel to Béla’s Drive and the prequel to My Bluegrass Heart. They spun into an ecstatically dizzying Vertigo before Sierra, Molly, Michael, and Mark subbed in for the beautiful Hug Point with Béla’s breathtaking low banjo entry and flutters. Another tag in (fun to see the high-fives as they entered and exited the stage) for wunderkind Billy Strings to join Béla, Sam, Jerry, Edgar, and Stuart in “imitating chickens” on Us Chickens, and then engage in an intricate, delightful flat-picking dance with Bryan Sutton on Tentacle Dragon. Roars galore.  

Another super crowd-pleaser was Strider, where Béla twists his tuner pegs for a bendy melody backed by Molly’s cool guitar stutter and Sierra and Stuart’s pure-fect playing. Chris Thile and Béla took us to church with their jaw-dropping Psalm 136; one thousand perfect notes ricocheted around Carnegie, reminding us just how blessed we are. The haunting Hunter’s Moon was also a hit with its swirling triple fiddles, and Baptist Pumpkin Farm fabulously featured four fiddles (Stuart, Sam, Michael, and Justin)! In another nod to his roots, Béla welcomed his teacher, Tony Trischka, to the stage for a triple-banjo Boulderdash. All treated us to the homage encores: The Martha White Theme Song, Tennessee, I’m Going Back to the Old Home, and Whitewater.

I had an opportunity to interview Béla about My Bluegrass Heart some time before the Carnegie show. I share some highlights of our discussion below.

JH:  You dedicate My Bluegrass Heart to Tony Rice and Chick Corea. Can you talk a little bit about each of them and their influences on you, your playing, and your life? One thing that struck me in your album notes is that you said that Tony was the only guitarist who could make you play bluegrass the way you wanted to. What way is that? And, how did he do that? 

BF: Tony had this rhythmic lift that he provided, and it wasn’t just like rushing. The music just danced. With music where everyone’s duplicating all the 16th notes together, which is very true of bluegrass where we are all kind of percolating along, how we each play those 16th notes has a real impact on each other. Most guitar players do not understand that very fine chromosomal building blocks of music “kind of thing.” Tony did. And, if you ever heard him play rhythm by himself, it was just stunning to listen to, and, of course, there were always intricacies that he would do, which were icing on the cake. But, the basic thing was this “feel.”

There are some assumptions when we use that word and everyone thinks we are talking about the same thing. But, it is a profundity to the basic essence. It is almost like if you are meditating and you can just breathe, or you can breathe with elegance. Tony breathed with elegance. His playing took hold of time and imbued it with elegance. And, the people who were truly listening who got to play along with him were infected by that elegance, and something happened to them. They were changed by it. A great drummer does that in a lot of kinds of music. A great banjo player can certainly make a band percolate better. But, if the guitar player is doing it, something happens because it is a constant. Everything else comes in and out of that guitar. Tony just had this way of galvanizing the situation and it was not just about sparks. It was an inner elegance to the music in its chromosomes.

JH:  And, that was basically the way you wanted to play bluegrass?

BF:  I just felt that I played differently when he was around. If I got to play with Tony, all of a sudden my hand went into the right position. Also, I am outsider to bluegrass who was always trying to get it. A New York kid, a Yankee player, and all of that, trying to get “The Thing” that makes bluegrass bluegrass. I always was a little bit of a stranger to it, and I really wanted to be someone who understood what “The Thing” was.  I heard people talking about “The Thing,” and I wanted to be able to do “The Thing.” It was a little bit of acting like I knew how to do “The Thing,” and not really sure if I was doing it. But, when Tony would play along, all of a sudden there was no question that I was doing “The Thing.” I got to play like Crowe or like Scruggs. I could suddenly play that way. And, so it was like I didn’t really want to play bluegrass if it wasn’t with Tony.

And, once you added Sam Bush, it was just unshakable. The two of those guys together with that dance, and Sam would lock it down to a metronomic precision with his chop. Playing banjo along with the two of them was just a dream come true.

JH:  So, as far as Tony Rice’s influence on your life, were you always then seeking out those dream moments?

BF:  Any chance I could play with Tony, I would. I would go see him perform if I was off. Sometimes he would ask me to come up and play. I was always hoping he would. And, in the various all-star jams and festivals, if anyone asked me who should we get to do this festival with you guys, I would say: “Well, is Tony Rice going to be there? Let’s put together a jam.”

He played on some records of mine that took a lot of work, and he worked hard with all of us and brought the dance. I brought ideas like with The Bluegrass Sessions, and that ended up a marriage of those ideas and that dance. The music swung. And, Tony brought that swing. Without that swing and without that feeling, it would not have been as good.

That is how come I was addicted to Tony, and when I could not play with him, I didn’t really want to play bluegrass. It was a little close-minded and, maybe, disrespectful to all of the other great players that have been out there doing great things and making music feel other ways than the way he made it feel. So, at the point when Tony was no longer available to be part of my music, I finally decided that almost twenty years was long enough and it was time to play some of this music before I forgot all these tunes I had been saving up all this time. Everyone is getting older and I was like, I am not going to wait another twenty years. So, I thought, let’s do something. At that point, I embraced both the loss of Tony and the genius of the other players that had come along since he set the stage. I truly embraced Bryan. A lot of things he does better than Tony. And, of course, Billy Strings brings this incredible energy and a drive that is very rare to come from guitarists. And, you know, Tony didn’t play that way. So, I embraced what other people can do: the variety that Bryan can play with; Cody Kilby having his own personality and way of playing; Molly Tuttle with her sensibilities. I started playing with the great people on the scene and appreciating them.

Because I couldn’t get Tony, I started trying these other formulas. I got to know all of these great musicians and am more intimate with them and what they bring. Like, what is the difference between Stuart Duncan and Michael Cleveland? What does Andy Leftwich do that those guys don’t do? What does Billy Contreras do that those other guys don’t? I got to know the field that is out there, and it was really fun. Maybe the people who follow me will also discover from listening to the record all these different voices on the instruments and how rich the scene is right now.

JH: Did Tony Rice hear any of My Bluegrass Heart?

BF: No. In fact, I had this idea as I got near the end of it. It was like Tony cannot be on the record, but I would love for him to hear it. I thought if I asked him to write the liner notes, maybe he would listen to the record and make some notes, and get to hear his impact on all these incredible guitar players. I was hoping for him to hear it and realize the debt everybody paid to him or are eager to pay him. Nobody on the record would play like they played if it was not for Tony. That is a pretty amazing thing to be able to say about a single guitarist.

JH:  The other person you dedicate the album to is Chick Corea. I understand that Tony helped you identify and get to “The Thing” of bluegrass. How about Chick Corea’s influence on your playing and your life?

BF:  On the playing side, Chick was trying to help me get to “The Thing” of jazz, which is a different thing. I still cannot believe I got to be friends with Chick Corea and that he is a part of my life. He came into my life and blew me away as a fan. I was a stone-cold fan, and we got to be musical partners and pals all the way up to the end. Now, he is gone and I am here by myself. But, Chick was always just so much into just being yourself. That was his doctrine and his thing: anything you do, just find a way to be yourself. On the playing level, it was that.

On life, I think about his record, My Spanish Heart. That was a neat title for an album, especially when you discover that this guy who plays with so much Latin influence is not Latin at all. He is an Italian. Italy may be a Latin country in some way, but it is not what you think of. He is not from Spain, Mexico, South America, or Latin America. No. From Italy. That is where his family is from. And, yet, he is known as a Latin musician to the extent that he wins Latin Grammys. The Latin community embraces him as one of their own. But, he is from completely outside that world. He has no claim to it in his background.

I am in a lot of ways in a very similar position in that I have my career and my bluegrass world, yet, I am from New York City. I am not only a Yankee, I am a New Yorker. A New York City kid. My family is Russian, German, Eastern European. No country music. No folk music. No musicians. No connection whatsoever to bluegrass. And, yet, it is the center of what I do as much as I might pretend otherwise or say, “Hey, no, I am a jazz musician or whatever it is.” If anyone asked me what is the center of what you do, I would have to say bluegrass is the very center. The bluegrass community is the center of my community and musical world, and everything else flowers out from that. So, I feel like I am an outsider to bluegrass and at the same time, it is the center of who I am.

JH:  That is amazing considering where you came from, but I know the story of you hearing the banjo for the first time and it was like sparks going off in your head. You were shaken to the core.

BF:  Yes. But, I also remember hearing Chick Corea play Spain, which is a great record for anyone to check out, and hearing the way he played that very Latin electric piano-driven song that blew me away almost exactly the way Earl Scruggs blew me away. I had that same experience hearing Chick the first time on that record and just going: “Wow, what is that?”

Earl Scruggs is another huge influence for me and so is Tony Trischka. There are plenty of people who influenced me for sure, but Chick was a big one.

JH: Did Chick Corea get to hear any of My Bluegrass Heart?

BF:  No. I was telling him about it and told him I was thinking of calling it “My Bluegrass Heart,” and asked what he thought of that. He just laughed and said, “Sure, man, go ahead.” He wasn’t proprietary about it, but I wanted to ask him. He said he wanted to hear it, and I was going to send it to him, but he died before I got it done.

I think he would have loved it because he had a very consumer way of listening rather than a critic way of listening. He listened with love in his heart. It would have been fun to play the album for him because I knew he would have just loved hearing all those cats play on the album.

JH:  It has been forever since you did a bluegrass album. How long have you had these tunes kicking around? How do you keep them alive over the years?

BF:  In 1988, when I made Drive, at least three of these tunes were already written. Baptist Pumpkin Farm was a tune I had written on the guitar trying to flat pick. The Old North Woods I had written on the mandolin trying to play like Bill Monroe. Tentacle Dragon I had written on the guitar trying to play like Mark O’Connor, who is a monstrous guitar player. Those three were around back then, but they were not right for that album. So, they just sat. Others I collected over the years.  

I tried to write Vertigo to play with The Chick Corea Elektric Band. We had a co-bill and I knew I had the start of a tune, but I could not quite figure out how to finish it in time for the tour. I thought maybe Chick would help me finish it, but he did not tune into it and it just got too late for that tour. I had Boulderdash around the time I went out with Bryan Sutton and Casey Driessen, and so I have had that one for quite a while too.

JH: What about Strider?

BF: That’s pretty new. I was putting the finishing touches on that while on tour with The Flecktones. I had come up with the idea and I would mess around with it on Sex in a Pan. Instead of playing a jam solo improvising, I would try to play the thing I was working on with the tuners. Then, I refined it and refined it until the album sessions when I realized we could record some more tracks. I got together with Sierra, Molly, Andy, and Mark, and I finished the song just in time for the session. I was writing the ending with all the fancy lines we are playing in unison right down to the session — like the night before!  

It was that way on Round Rock too. I don’t even know how long I have had Round Rock. I pick up the banjo and that tune comes out. It is probably from the mid-Nineties. I thought it might be a Flecktone tune, but it never seemed to work with them. Just before the My Bluegrass Heart session happened, I finally figured out these key changes, and then the night before I figured out the intro and outro. So, these things would be coming in for a landing just before the tape started to roll.

JH:  How did you figure out which musicians to have for the different songs on My Bluegrass Heart? Did you seek out certain musicians for the tunes in your head? Like, this is a Molly Tuttle song or this would be great with Billy Strings? Or, did you just invite them over, play everything, and see where things landed?

BF:  The first thing I did was invite over Michael Cleveland, Dominick Leslie, Paul Kowert, and Cody Kilby, and I just threw a bunch of stuff at them. We played each thing for a little while to see what clicked. There were five or six things that I thought nobody’s going to do them better than these guys. After cutting those first five songs, I started thinking I really couldn’t not have Sam, Jerry, and Stuart on this record. So, I started looking at what songs I had left that would be great for them. I also really wanted to have Bryan and I also opened it up to Billy Strings. It became: what would be better for Billy Strings? What would be better for Bryan? What about Billy Contreras? Then, I started casting the songs based on who would be the right cast for the tunes I had left. 

It used to be that we would all look at the records to see who was playing on each track. It was the fun thing about getting a big vinyl record: looking at the song list and who was playing on everything and then listening for that person to come in on their song. I hope people will do that with My Bluegrass Heart because if they know bluegrass music or they want to know bluegrass, they will start to understand who everybody is pretty quickly.

JH:  To me, My Bluegrass Heart is an album that showcases where you have been. You have traveled far and wide and circled back to bluegrass carrying all that you gathered in your travels and put features of that in this album. Is that on point?

BF:  Totally. That is exactly right. I now have permission to do what I will with what I have learned. I do not feel restrained or afraid. There is a lot of shame and fear in bluegrass about not doing “The Thing,” or what people are expecting of you, especially among progressives and people like me who are not from the center. Like, it is not okay to do certain things. But, it is just not true. That is one of the things I remember talking to Chick Corea about: him saying “You have permission to do anything you want. There is no not permission in music.” We were doing a radio interview one day and he said that in the conversation. I really liked hearing that. I can get that way where I’m doing something and I know I like it, and yet I feel ashamed because I know I am not playing like Earl Scruggs or J.D. Crowe. And, why on Earth should I ever have played like them when I am from New York City? That is not who I am. But, I can play like me and I can be deeply influenced by them. Great art is not usually made by people who are scared to make their art. I am not saying this is great art, but I am certainly not going to get great art if I am not fearless.

JH:  It seems there is a bit of Flecktones or concerto or Chick Corea duo wrapped up in a bluegrass bouquet on the different My Bluegrass Heart songs.

BF:  Absolutely. I feel the freedom to do that because of people like Coltrane. Coltrane was listening to Indian music and spiritual music and bringing that into his jazz, making jazz more wide-ranging and diverse, so there are more kinds of jazz from those explorations outside of what was technically called jazz. So, I am quite comfortable with the fact that traditional bluegrass is what it is, and should be what it is, and should not have to be progressive. But, as a broader subject, bluegrass can be all of those things. Someone who is studying bluegrass may have their preference to be progressive or traditional, but they might study it and say: “Okay, if you’re a bluegrass musician now, then you want to learn your Doc Watson, your Clarence White, your Tony Rice, but you also want to learn your Billy Strings, your Bryan Sutton, your Punch Brothers.” You want to learn the whole field of bluegrass, which is fairly wide, not just one cranny of it, and then you decide what you want to do: well-armed with all the facts and possibilities. You can go very traditional or very modern. Or, you could embrace it all and just love it all. There are a lot of ways you can go with music.

JH:  It is a beautiful thing. Certainly, one of the things that makes the world more joyful.

BF:  And, the more we keep our blinders on and say, “Well, I only like jazz from the Fifties,” you just have less jazz you get to enjoy. You are the only person that gets limited by that decision, and it is a perfectly reasonable decision. It is perfectly okay for people to say “I don’t like Béla since he left NGR.” I am glad they like NGR, and I do not begrudge them their opinion a single bit. People get to have opinions, but the people who have wider taste just have more things they get to enjoy.

JH:  Can you talk about your thoughts on the state of bluegrass today and its future? I figure you would have some thoughts given you assembled quite a team for My Bluegrass Heart that crosses a couple generations.

BF:  Bluegrass is richer than it has ever been in terms of the sheer talent in the field. But, it has the same problem it has always had, which is a problem in other musical genres as well: finding people with a vision and a way to arrange all the talents to create a statement that will stand the test of time. This is still a very rare commodity. There are a lot of good players. But, there are just not enough people who really know the music who can make use of all these incredible talents out there in the field. That is the element that we do not always have enough of: the real leaders with a vision to make something out of all of this. I wish there were more.

When we talk about the Fifties of jazz or bluegrass, you have all these people with very different views about how to make something out of this pile of talents. You have Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, and Gillespie. Duke Ellington and Big Bands are out there too. And, in bluegrass, you have Reno & Smiley, the Osborne Brothers, The Country Gentlemen, and Jim & Jesse. Bill Monroe is still out there along with Flatt and Scruggs. Everybody’s bluegrass sounds really different from each other’s. We just do not have that richness of concept right now. My question to the great, incredibly-talented people of today is: if you can play anything, what are you going to play?

As for Béla, who can play anything, he is currently playing his double-album of original bluegrass compositions, derived from his bluegrass core and forays into other musical worlds. And, he is playing those tunes with some of the finest talent in the bluegrass field. No doubt, My Bluegrass Heart will stand the test of time, just like his Drive and The Bluegrass Sessions have. My Bluegrass Heart is present day bluegrass that honors its history and sets the stage for its future. It already has, legendarily, planted the bluegrass flag squarely on the stage of that most hallowed hall in all the land. And, while the Carnegie Hall show has passed, more My Bluegrass Heart concerts are forthcoming to help launch the genre into its next chapter. Check here for where and when to be awe-struck by magnificence and magnitude.

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About the Author

Jen Hughes

Jen Hughes is a devoted bluegrass enthusiast. An Upstate New York native who resides in Washington, D.C., Jen attends shows in and around the Nation’s capital, a bluegrass haven. She also makes the trek to as many festivals as possible each year. The sweet sounds of New Grass Revival took hold of her in high school and she has studied up on the genre backwards and forwards since then. Her hope is to get even more people hooked as she is on bluegrass music and its extraordinary artists and community.