The Symphony Center is a different place when the program veers away from classical. Few suits and ties, no designer dresses or jewelry. Plenty of jeans and khakis, checks and plaids, t-shirts with lettering, a bolo tie or two, boots and hoodies. It’s a different audience vibe when the music is bluegrass. And so it was last Friday when Bela Fleck, the banjo virtuoso, and his multitalented wife, Abigail Washburn (vocals and clawhammer banjo) took the stage for a one-hour set.
They were followed by the Del McCoury band, a traditional bluegrass band made up of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. And all five musicians did wear suits and ties, as traditional bluegrass players do.
When Bela and Abbie came on the CSO stage, they looked around at the beautiful auditorium and Bela said, admiringly, “Looks like this place needs some banjo playing.” And so they did.
Bela Fleck is gray-haired now and a little heavier than when I met him 30-odd years ago at a KFC Bluegrass Music festival in Louisville. He was playing then with a progressive bluegrass band called New Grass Revival, featuring mandolin player Sam Bush. I was doing press relations for KFC corporate, and so I got the bluegrass festival assignment. Three full September days of bluegrass, morning to night, on the riverfront plaza. I worked for KFC for less than two years, but went back several years after that to work at the festival.
Fleck and Washburn released an eponymously titled debut album, which won a 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and they’re working on a new album. Fleck is a superbly talented banjo player, focused totally on his instrument. Washburn’s effervescent personality, sassy commentary and song stylings bring energy and charm to their duo act.
Many of the songs they played were their own compositions, but they opened with a traditional folk song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” with a vocal by Abigail. They performed a song in Chinese, built on Abigail’s many tours to China and her fluency in Mandarin.
Another number performed with great feeling was “Come All Ye Coal Miners,” an eastern Kentucky labor protest song by Sarah Ogan Gunning, from a coal mining family. They also played a Carter Family song, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Their most powerful performance was on “Harland, Kentucky,” a song they composed together. Abigail, whose vocals started out sweetly and became more robust as the set progressed, announced that she was going to do something during this song that she had never done before. And she accompanied the powerful lyrics with an excellent display of Appalachian clog dancing, her heels providing percussion and punctuation for the lyrics and Bela’s picking.
The pair switched instruments frequently, with Bela occasionally playing a small ukulele banjo as well as a baritone banjo.
At one point, the pair described and demonstrated the differences in their playing styles. Abigail plays clawhammer banjo, sometimes called frailing, a rhythmic strumming style of playing. The banjo and that style of playing were brought from West Africa by the blacks who became slaves in the south.
Bela plays bluegrass banjo, notable for its fast three-finger picking, made famous by Earl Scruggs.
The clawhammer banjo has an open back, while the bluegrass banjo has a resonator back to enhance its sound. But the main difference between the two styles is picking vs strumming.
The Del McCoury Band came on for the second set, led by the bluegrass veteran Del McCoury on guitar and lead vocals. His two sons, Ronnie and Rob, play mandolin and banjo. Jason Carter plays a fabulous fiddle and Alan Bartram is on upright bass. The band performs close harmony on traditional bluegrass songs such as “Kentucky Waltz” and more contemporary tracks such as “Nashville Cats” by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Del McCoury Band has been playing more or less in its current form since 1992. They have won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award nine times. They record now on their own label—McCoury Music.