Leave it to Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, today's first family of the banjo, to make beautiful music with banjos alone.
"Actually, it is very easy if the players are simpatico and aware," says Fleck, who is also married to Washburn. "You have to consider what the other person is playing and look for things they are not doing, parts of the measures that are free for accents, and you always can ripple along together if both people have a decent sense of time. We find it to be the most natural thing in the world."
Of course, it's only natural to two of the instrument's most virtuosic present-day players. Fleck needs no introduction to fans of the banjo; he has been twanging his way through every imaginable genre of world music since the early '80s. Working with his band the Flecktones, as a solo artist, or in collaboration with groups including the Muwewesu Xylophone Group, Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, and Malian ngoni player Cheick Hamala Diabate, Fleck has amassed 15 Grammy Awards and earned nominations in more categories than any other artist in history.
Washburn is a relative newcomer to the banjo, but she made waves with her debut solo album Song of the Traveling Daughter in 2005 and again with her 2011 record City of Refuge, produced by Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens). An Illinois native, Washburn majored in East Asian Studies in college and lived in China for a while, picking up Chinese playing and singing styles along the way. She nearly entered law school in Beijing but decided to stay in the States, where she threw herself into projects including the old-time Sparrow Quartet and the all-female string band Uncle Earl.
Fittingly, the duo met at a square dance where Fleck was playing, but Fleck says it took him some time to learn that Washburn played the same instrument as he did. "She was hanging out with a musical bunch of people, but I didn't know she sang and played for quite some time," Fleck says. "When I first heard her demo, I started driving so fast that I got pulled over by the police and had to walk the line. I loved her music instantly."
As luck would have it, the two discovered that they had learned complementary playing styles. While Fleck uses the more showy three-finger style popularized by Earl Scruggs, Washburn favors the old-fashioned clawhammer style that Pete Seeger dubbed the "bum-diddy" for its signature strumming sound.
"She tends to groove and play the fundamental parts, and I tend to improvise and paint over the top," Fleck says. "We also meet in the middle. And it only works so well because her beautiful voice sits on top of all the banjos."
At first, Fleck says the life of married musicians was difficult, with touring schedules forcing the two to spend long periods apart. But now, as a duo, they're able to tour together with their one-year-old son Juno in tow, an arrangement that Fleck describes as "very sweet."
The family band puts on a charming live show, too. During a spring 2013 recording of NPR's Mountain Stage at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Fleck and Washburn played an electrifying and diverse set that included the lilting Sichuan folk tune "The Love Song of Kanding" and a heartbreaking take on the Doc Watson classic "Am I Born to Die?"
Washburn held the banjo in front of her then-seven-months-pregnant belly, joking that "a very distinct banjo collaboration of some sort led to ... the trio." As Washburn translated the love song into English before launching into singing in Mandarin, Fleck chimed in with playful sound effects on the banjo — a wolf whistle, the sound of ascending a mountain on horseback, the sound of a young man being struck by a young lady's beauty. Even without video, their charismatic stage presence together was palpable.
The Fleck-Washburn marriage has generated no shortage of buzz in the bluegrass community. In a satirical piece, The Bluegrass Intelligencer wrote that the wedding was a strategic step in the couple's "long campaign to unify the progressive and old-time banjo empires under a single sovereign ruler." This was back in 2009, but already the writer foresaw the possibility of an heir to the throne, a promised one who would rule as the Holy Banjo Emperor.
So, one last question for Fleck before we let him go: Little Juno is going to learn the banjo, right?
"Totally up to him. There'll be absolutely no pressure from us. We're definitely not gonna push him into it," Fleck says.
"OK, I've got to go. It's time for his first lesson."