Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn Keep Folk Alive

Folk legend Bela Fleck is a man of few words. As he came onstage with his wife, singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn, it was clear he was not going to be the one to do the talking. Fleck and Washburn played two sold-out shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music that evening, and as I settled in for the second show of the night, I was delighted by the sheepish grin on Fleck’s face. The 59-year old virtuoso looked right at home  surrounded by a plethora of banjos and was more comfortable making eye contact with his wife than with any of the audience members. What he lacked in social dynamics, however, he made up for nearly unbelievable musicianship. As the two played their first song of the night, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” Fleck seemed to relax and even made a few dad-worthy jokes between songs.

The duo released their newest album, Echo in the Valley, in October 2017, and their musical chemistry seems to be strengthened by their marriage. Fleck and Washburn have been married for eight years and are expecting their second child together, and it’s clear the two are still enamored with each other. Washburn’s big belly seemed to be in the way of her banjo-playing a few times, and she kept the audience laughing as she struggled between songs to stay composed.

Their second song of the evening, “Over the Divide,” was an homage to Hanz Breuer, an Austrian sheepherder who secretly drove dozens of Syrian refugees over the Hungarian border while yodeling to make them laugh. The two had countless stories about their songs throughout the night, and each story added a little more humanity to the evening.

While the two covered old folk songs as well as some of Bela’s iconic songs from his time with the Flecktones, the best moments of the night stemmed from the songs Washburn and Fleck wrote together. “Bloomin’ Rose” was one of the most poignant songs of the night. The couple had a strong reaction to the protests at Standing Rock, but, rather than “take the Native Americans’ story” as Washburn put it, they met with tribal leaders from the Dakotas and listened to their concerns. One of these leaders suggested writing a song about the couple’s perspective as outsiders, so they leaned on their love of nature and left the story of Standing Rock to be told by those who were immediately affected. It was wonderful to learn the history behind their songs, and it gave each tune a much deeper meaning.

Throughout the show, I kept picturing the couple’s oldest child (who’s only 4 years old) and what life must be like for him. I imagined a house full of light and warmth, filled with music and adult conversation, and I pictured their son taking it all in. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn are incredible musicians, they seem like incredible human beings, and I imagine they’re even better parents.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn will be playing several shows in the Southern states at the end of the month. Tickets for their tour can be found here. Also see our review of Fleck and Washburn at the Symphony Center last May.

Kate Scott
Kate Scott

Kate Scott Daly specializes in music journalism. Her body of work includes live documenting over 200 bands, reviewing several albums and concerts, and multiple artist interviews. Kate continues to brave the photo pits of major music venues and outdoor festivals throughout the Chicagoland scene.