Bela Fleck is an astronaut, his vehicle a banjo tuned to frequencies not readily available on most mortals' receivers. Fleck's mastery of space and timing puts him outside the canon of most string pluckers, even when what he's doing sounds vaguely traditional. Echo In the Valley is his second release with wife Abigail Washburn following the duo's Grammy-winning eponymous debut in 2016.
“Over The Great Divide” sounds like it might have climbed down from the mountains, but the continent those hills are on is debatable. Fleck and Washburn's picking has as much in common with China as Appalachia, and Washburn's yodeling could be home in either region as well. But you have to be careful interpreting the duo's work. The framework often is at odds with the message, in a good way, presented in such a way that you can't allow yourself to get carried away by the melody or lack thereof, needing to concentrate on the lyrics instead. Washburn zips the words by you so swiftly on this one it's hard to make 'em out, but in a recent interview, Fleck revealed that the song “touches on the situation and the idea you feel like there's nothing you can do about some of the terrible things that are going on, but some people do figure out things to do.” He cites Austrian sheepherder Hans Breuer, “who was carrying Syrians to safety over the border on roads (through Hungary to Austria) that nobody knew but him.” Fleck says the song was originally an instrumental played at soundcheck, “but gradually developed into a story about Hans Breuer.”
Another tune that can throw you off is “Take Me To Harlan.” Even though you get a feel of how you think things are gonna go from the title, a visit to hardscrabble Kentucky coal-mining country, the melody takes you in an entirely different direction, a transglobal journey that sounds like a funky Greek plate-smashing celebration.
Fleck quickly resets your GPS: “The whole idea here was that Abby wanted to do a song where she buck danced and sang at the same time. That percussion you heard is Abby's feet. It's one live take, not overdubbed multiple feet, just one take, then I'm playing banjo and Abby is singing. She performs that live with the dancing and singing all at once. Pretty much of a showstopper, but the song itself is about ... ”
“It's about home,” Washburn interrupts. “It's about everybody's sense of home, and what home means to them and for us, to use Harlan because its a strong cultural meeting point of what a lot of what the music of Appalachia and the culture of Appalachia and the history of coal mining there and the post-industrial life of people there now.”
The duo dabbles in politics with a couple of entries. “Don't Let it Bring You Down” is an Appalachian banjo blues about how everybody on either side of the political spectrum is really frustrated with the media take from either side.
Fleck says “Blooming Rose” “has a lot to do with environment and the actual physical world that we're creating, the pollution, the disassociation from the planet.”
The couple also reflect on parenting with “If I Could Talk To a Younger Me” inspired by their four-year-old son, Juno. “If I could talk to a younger me, I'd tell me to go slow,” Washburn purrs wistfully on the mellow, folky tune.
“It's a winding road for me," says Fleck. "Got a lot to do with people we know who have left long relationships, found themselves adrift: 'I don't know where I'm going I don't know what I'm gonna do, I don't know what's gonna happen, but I can't be here any more, I have to change.'”
The couple takes on traditional tunes “Sally in the Garden” and “Molly Put the Kettle On.” But even when the material is traditional, the couple puts a Flecktoned spin on it. Clarence Ashley's “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” gets hammered out as a blues, with Abigail howling like a lost soul bemoaning her fate. “Abby was goofin' around on the soundcheck and we went into a blues mode and it really sounded good, and 'Wow, this song really is a blues,' ” Fleck says. “We found a whole new way to play it based on that, recorded it and forgot all about it until we started to look for songs to record, then pulled that out.”
His method may be a bit out there, but Fleck says his goal is to get some respect for his instrument. “Part of my mission is to say that the banjo can be a lot of things. I think it ought to have been or deserves to be a great cultural blending pot, a true example of a lot of different cultures coming together and being used for a lot of different kinds of music.”