If it’s time for IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, it must be time for another keynote address by a “name” player who has bluegrass in his background but has moved on to other genres. It’s been the organization’s M.O. for the past few years.
Doing the honors this year: Béla Fleck, one of the most inventive banjo players on the planet. He spent a good deal of his convention kickoff speech focusing on his decision in the late 1980s to leave the New Grass Revival and pursue jazz-based music with the Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
At the time, he said in a speech that was part confessional, part I-saw-the-light conversion, he saw distancing himself from bluegrass as the only way forward because the music business seemed to be shunning the banjo and any connection to bluegrass or country music.
But over the years, he realized that whenever he needed to pull out the stops, he found that he didn’t turn to Miles Davis or Bach. He turned to Earl Scruggs, whom he described as “an inspiring force in my musical life.”
“Imagine my surprise when I discovered my connection to bluegrass was actually my secret weapon and my strength,” he said. “Bluegrass is my center, my home, and the reason I play the banjo.”
For the traditionalists in the crowd, Fleck offered a bone – a series of anecdotes about Bill Monroe. There was his audition with Monroe, in which the boss wasn’t impressed with his playing. And his fill-in gig with Monroe, when the bandleader wasn’t impressed with his wardrobe. And the backstage jam at the Grand Ol’ Opry, when Fleck and Monroe were getting along famously, until Sam Bush showed up with his mandolin and the Father of Bluegrass suddenly split.
And for everybody in the bluegrass tent, traditionalists and progressives, he offered a path forward: Safeguard the music, but don’t copy it.