Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn had both been making banjo inspired music with different groups of musicians way before their fortuitous meeting at a square dance in 2007, Bela was playing, Abigail was dancing and continued to do so even after they became an item.
That changed with the birth of their son, Juno, who had been wittily described as the "Holy Banjo Emperor" even before his conception. A period of extensive touring as a duo, well technically a trio, started back in 2013. That lead to the very stripped back, two banjos and voices, self-titled debut album that landed them the Grammy for best folk album in 2016.
They've not exactly been laid back since, album number two, "Echo In The Valley" was released earlier this year and it's been accompanied by another extensive family tour, including a date in Eureka, California's self-styled capital of streaking, ok that last part isn't true, but it's where Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn were when I caught up with them.
The current tour started off with a series of three benefit gigs and other benefit gigs are littered along the length and breadth of the tour. Some of the gigs are social charities, others more environment focused, I was intrigued as to how the causes got chosen.
"It's important that music is at the heart of the community," explained Bela, "When you know you aren't going to be in a place long enough to really be a part of the community, it helps build a bridge with that community, it's not a one way process of turning up, make some money and move on."
"It helps provide empathy and knowledge", adds Abigail, "It helps us speak to the community. There's a benefit element to every gig we play, the profits from the merch at a show go into a charity in that community. Sometimes it's about connecting to the environment the people come from, sometimes it's more direct than that."
As with other recent tours, Bela and Abigail are touring pretty much as a family unit and the albums have been just them, no guest musicians, no outside producers. I was interested if this was something that came out of a deliberate choice or more evolved from playing together in the front room.
Abigail, "We've done two albums since Juno was born…Before I used to get really absorbed for about four weeks, totally focused, doing an album around a child is different process. It's important to work it all out, it's a longer process, but it feels more organic."
"It's about how music informs you, how deep you go into an area, you need to keep it diverse. We have both worked with groups of other musicians, including an orchestra in my case," contributes Bela, "We need this to be pragmatic and economically it makes sense, but it also means less compromise, it's an advert for what you want it to be."
"Sometimes it's easy, but it can also be more difficult as duo and a couple. With more people there are other people to help with consensus when you've got an idea that you are passionate about and that you want to make the finished song, it's knowing when to take a break and let the passion subside," Abigail continues, "You start out with the things you love, there's a song on this tour, "Harlen" that I'm singing and dancing during the whole song, never done that before. It's a lot of sweat and it forced me into learning to dance properly, but never would have done that with my other groups."
I'd briefly met Abigail when she played Cambridge Folk Festival back in 2011. It would have been a stretch to have asked her if she remembered the chat, but it did prompt a question about the differences between playing festivals and touring as a headliner.
"Festivals definitely widen the net, they are a good place to reach out, there will always be people there that haven't heard you before and are curious so it's a chance to win them over but if festivals were all you did…"
Bela added, "It's old friends versus new friends. Trying to find a chemistry with new friends is really exciting. You want to turn new friends into old friends, you can have more of a conversation with old friends, you don't need to introduce the songs in the same way. It's great riding around in tour bus, like it is at the moment where every day is something different, festivals can feel a bit rushed."
We get back to the album, when your previous album's a Grammy winner, does that put extra pressure on "Echo In The Valley".
"It's not something we really thought about, we just wanted to make another album and get out there before Juno starts school. It's important to us to keep the heritage alive and enjoy what we're doing. It's there but it's not why we made another album."
"It was there, but the stuff I do with Abi is such a great experience. The writing period was over and we're out playing it, there's so much to do you don't think about it.
It seemed a natural place to stop. I really enjoyed the chat and "Echo In The Valley" is definitely one that you should consider giving your time to. Time was ticking and Bela and Abigail headed off to do family stuff before getting ready for the gig that evening, me, I reached for the cd player.
Neil King - Words
Jim McGuire - Pics