When a boy is given a name like Béla, he has one of two options: change his name or grow a thick skin and get used to being different. Couple that with being a New York City teenager with a predilection for banjo instead of guitar in the rock-heavy 1970s, and Béla Fleck got used to operating on society's fringes at an early age.
Now, at 51, Fleck has turned his quirky obsession into an award-winning career spanning 30 years. Blending bluegrass, folk, jazz, and other genres, he is currently considered the world's foremost banjo virtuoso.
"I was certainly a different kid," Fleck says. "No one was into folk or bluegrass in my age group. It's actually surprising to me now how few there were, since this was only a few years after the folk boom. I would think everyone would be emulating the folkies in 1973 ... but nope."
Fleck's first moment of banjo infatuation actually came when he was watching a Beverly Hillbillies rerun. "The sound shocked me, and I always remember that moment, hearing the great Earl Scruggs for the first time," Fleck says. "Then, several years later, when I was 15, 'Dueling Banjos' became a worldwide hit, and my grandfather bought me a banjo."
Fleck's first album, 1979's Crossing the Tracks, was rooted in the progressive bluegrass sound that became his trademark. But Fleck's insatiable desire to push boundaries led him to explore traditional jazz — with his banjo.
"Early on, I got excited about the progressive element in bluegrass," he says. "So it wasn't that big a leap into the big world of jazz. I wanted to actually play jazz, not just be a jazz/bluegrasser. I felt that there was no reason the banjo couldn't work; it was all about whether I'd be a good enough musician to pull it off."
Fleck's extensive catalog boasts over 40 solo or collaborative albums, 14 of which were recorded with the Flecktones, his back-up group consisting of saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who recently returned from a stint with the Dave Matthews Band, and two brothers — pop-and-slap electric bassist Victor Wooten and experimental percussionist Future Man. (Harmonica player and keyboardist Howard Levy is on board for the fall and winter tour dates as well).
The Grammy's have rewarded Fleck's industry: he's been nominated in more categories than any other musician, and as of 2008, has taken home nine of those golden trophies.
Industry awards or not, the banjo itself has long been regarded by some as the proverbial ugly, red-headed stepchild of stringed instruments. But, in the last several years, its popularity has surged. Comedians have proven particularly prolific in the community (Fleck counts Steve Martin, Kevin Nealon, Billy Connelly, and the Spinal Tap guys among his banjo-playing friends), and it's the hipster instrument of choice for indie-folk bands like Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, and Sufjan Stevens, to name just a few.
"I think the hillbilly stigma of the banjo has worn off, these days," Fleck says. "It used to be quite depressing to be a banjo player, with everybody flapping their arms at you and shouting, 'Yee-Haw!' at the top of their lungs when you wandered by. Now people seem to see it as a hip part of America's heritage."