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Banjo wizard bound for Adelaide

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Banjo wizard Béla Fleck, announced as one of the headliners of this year’s Adelaide Guitar Festival, says he fell in love with the instrument while watching TV sitcom ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ as a boy.

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The 16-time Grammy Award winner has been credited with re-inventing the instrument’s image through his experimentation and projects such as writing a concerto for the Nashville Symphony.

Fleck will be performing at the Guitar Festival in August with his partner, singer and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn, with whom he recently won the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album for their release Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn.

Here, he talks to InDaily about the hardest thing he’s tried with the banjo, what is was like recording with Washburn while the pair had a baby on the way, and what audiences can expect from their Adelaide show.

Adelaide Guitar Festival artistic director Slava Grigoryan has said that you have done for the banjo what Segovia did for the guitar 100 years ago. What drew you to it originally?

I fell in love with the five-string banjo when I heard it on TV as a small child. It was the Beverly Hillbillies theme, and it was the great Earl Scruggs playing banjo. He’s ignited many a banjo player!

How difficult was it to challenge people’s perceptions of what the instrument could do?

In a way it’s worked in my favour that people’s expectations of the banjo were so low. They might have thought it was going to be laughable to see a banjo player in a rock band, or jazz group or a classical situation.

I had to be good then [when starting out], but I have to be better now. Folks are starting to see the banjo in a different light.

You’ve developed a reputation for experimentation and interesting collaborations, with projects spanning genres from classical to jazz, folk and pop. What’s the most radical thing you have attempted with a banjo?

The hardest and most challenging has been my banjo concertos. I’m just premiering my second. I don’t know if radical is the right word, but it is highly unexpected.

Going to Africa and playing with traditional artists – there was another crazy attempt at something truly different.

Is it true that you and Abigail Washburn met at a square dance?

Yes.   I was in the band, and she was dancing. She lit up the whole room.

Fun rapport: Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck.

Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck.

The first album you released as a duo recently won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. How did you find the process of recording together, especially with a new baby in the mix?

I love working with Abby, and what a thrill to win a Grammy with your life partner. It was very validating for our duo project. It’s especially cool that it’s for an album we made in our basement, in between feedings for our newborn, Juno.

But make no mistake, it was a bit of a test of our relationship. Next time, we’re not doing it that way!

What can audiences expect from your Adelaide Guitar Festival performance?

It will be mostly duo album material, but a few things from Abby’s previous CDs and mine.

We have a very fun rapport, and usually we can get a great energy going with the crowd. We have lots of laughs, and even the occasional sing-along rears its head!

Little Juno features prominently in photos on your official Facebook page. Is he showing any musical talent yet?

He’s much more interested in golf presently, but we do have some bad-ass bus jams with him on tour. He’s taken to singing abstract songs, which we love to hear. When he goes into one, we all get real quiet, and try to turn on our phone recorders as fast as possible.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will perform at the Adelaide Town Hall on August 12. The Guitar Festival also announced yesterday that acoustic quintet the Punch Brothers will play at the Town Hall on August 11. The full program for the festival is yet to be announced.

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