Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Rounder Records

Béla and Abigail pose on the front of their album, back to back, with their banjos at the ready. However, they never succumb to dueling banjos, instead creating a harmonious blend of sounds unlike what you expect from the banjo.

This is the first all-banjo album to be added to my collection, and a marvelous addition it is.

Flip the enclosed CD insert open to the center, and where you expect to see the band you see an amazing collection of banjos. Here you will see the expected openback and resonator banjos. But wait, there is so much more. You can see uke banjos, which coincides with the current uke craze, and also a bass banjo, a cello banjo, and a newly developed baritone banjo. That instrument collection explains the range of tonalities that Béla and Abigail offer up on this amazing album.

On “Little Birdie,” Abigail plays yet another banjo, fretless, which allows for sliding tones like a slide guitar but with a deeper tone. The little bird, not quite ready to fly, is being sized up for a snack by a crocodile. The momma bird flies in and grabs the birdie before catastrophe strikes. The deep bass notes and the slides add to the idea of risk.

Béla is an influential banjo player who has recorded many albums, often in the bluegrass or traditional genres. But he has won Grammys (15 total) in jazz, pop, and world music as well. He has played with many wonderful musicians and the 1997 release, Uncommon Ritual, with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall still ranks in my top 20. His band, the Flecktones, has fused many styles and instruments together.

Abigail, a skilled banjo player in her own right, has veered more to bringing modern ideas to the traditional sounds of the banjo. She has toured extensively including to China. The Silk Road tour was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, Beijing, in an effort to build bridges, and continues Abigail’s long-term relationship with China.

This duo effort is dedicated to their son, Juno, pictured with the tiny uke banjo on the center of the CD cover. The banjo playing is done in pairs, but we only hear the vocal expressions of Abigail. The album turns the corner with two pairs of songs that are separated by instrumental tunes.

“Pretty Polly,” a traditional tune, recounts the tale of a man not quite ready to marry. He lures his intended to go with him on a pleasure ride. She doesn’t return.

He stabbed her to the heart
Her heart’s blood it did flow
Into the grave pretty Polly did go

After that disturbing story, “Shotgun Blues” overturns the traditional murder ballad, where the victim is usually a woman dying at the hands of a man. Abigail sings of taking retribution.

If I thought you felt bad
’Bout what you done to me
I’d let you go
But boy you are just too mean

The second pair starts with a nod to Doc Watson, “And Am I Born to Die.” The banjos and Abigail’s voice are a perfect fit for these tunes.

And am I born to die
To lay this body down
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown

“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” opens with lines that offer comforting reflections about the end of suffering that comes with heaven. The last verse of this traditional song returns to challenge those who are still fully alive.

There’s some who were poor
And often despised
They look up to Heaven
With tear-blinded eyes
While others were heedless
And deaf to their cries
What are they doin’ right now?

If you enjoy banjo, get this album. If you think the banjo has only one sound, get this album. I enjoyed this music as much on the tenth time through as I did on the first. I will confess I did some research into the cello and baritone banjos, and in fact I could be tempted to try and play one of them. I need to remember before I get my expectations too high—these special banjos are played by master musicians.

I am sure this is the first all-banjo album to be added to my collection, and a marvelous addition it is.