After years of wandering through the vast musical labyrinth that encompasses country, classical, jazz, pop, and even portions of African tribal music, Belá Fleck returns home with his new collaborative LP My Bluegrass Heart. Released September 10, the album serves as the third chapter in a decades-spanning trilogy that began with the 15-time Grammy-winner’s 1988’s Drive and continued in 1999 with The Bluegrass Sessions. His core group of bluegrass comrades, including mandolinist and fellow New Grass Revivalist Sam Bush, guitarist Tony Rice, fiddle player Stuart Duncan, bassist Mark Schatz and dobro player Jerry Douglas appear on Drive, along with special guests Mark O’Connor and Peter Rowan. Bluegrass Sessions featured John Hartford, Vassar Clements, and Earl Scruggs — all three of which are no longer with us. In memory of Rice, their late friend, and bandmate, The New Grass outfit joined forces once again for Fleck’s new project.
Produced and composed by Fleck, My Bluegrass Heart marks the artist’s first Bluegrass album in over 20 years. Yet, the pioneering artist pulls from two decades of expansive musical exploration, resulting in what might be Fleck’s most dynamic contribution to date. The Flecktones, the project that immediately followed New Grass Revival, recently celebrated 30 years of melding acoustic with electronic and Bluegrass with jazz and funk. Venturing further, Fleck released duo albums and tours with jazz legend Chick Corea and life partner Abigail Washburn, the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet, three classical banjo concertos, an amazing collaboration with Indian musical royalty — Zakir Hussain, Rakesh Churasia, and old friend/bass genius Edgar Meyer. Between these works, the artist also created the award-winning 2009 documentary Throw Down Your Heart, which explored the African origins of the banjo. “I’m being a little braver,”
Fleck tells American Songwriter over the phone in a recent interview about the album project. “Typically, when I do a Bluegrass record, I kind of work within a certain idiomatic way of playing. Even though I play around the edges of it, I don’t go that far. But this album, I decided to include it all — some really traditional stuff, some fairly straightforward stuff, but just be myself the whole way. And then put some of the creativity that I would typically put into a project with Chick Corea or orchestra or Zakir Hussain but put it into a bluegrass context.
My Bluegrass Heart is centered on the tradition of sharing music between generations. The album is dedicated to both Rice and Corea — whose classic My Spanish Heart inspired the title. To honor their musical legacy, Fleck finds the balance by inviting both old friends and new ones from the emerging class of Bluegrass purveyors. Album opener “Vertigo,” sees Fleck reuniting with Bush, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Bryan Sutton of the Telluride House Band — setting the tone of tried-and-true musical tradition in which Fleck rooted his new project. Similarly, “Bum’s Rush” welcomes contributions from Douglas’ dobro and Billy Contreras’ trans-genre fiddle-violin dexterity.
Songs like “Charm School”, featuring 28-year-old guitar-virtuoso Billy Strings and a 40-year-old Chris Thile on mandolin, are carefully crafted tunes intended to carry on age-old traditions while embracing multi-generational neo-folk approaches.
“It’s really fun to play with younger players that care about what you’ve been doing your whole life, and they’re inspired by it. It’s a booby prize, you could say, of getting older,” says Fleck. “In my opinion, Béla Fleck is one of the most important musicians of all time,” Strings shares about the collaboration. “He bridges the gap between bluegrass, classical, jazz, world music, and everything in between. It seems like there’s no limit to what he can achieve on the banjo.”
Similar to what Rice and Bush’s music meant to Fleck before he started playing with them, Fleck is humbled by the reverence with which his predecessors approach their genre contributions. “It’s a great thing, if you live long enough, you find out some small number of people are really moved by what you do,” he continues. “When you interact with them, you realize you’re in them. And when you hear new things, it’s so familiar to me. I could relate to it in that if I started at a later point, that’s where I would be. But since they’re starting with me, that’s where they are.”
Fleck considers that Trischka — his teacher — probably has a similar experience when he hears Fleck’s music. “He’s hearing me taking off from where he started.
Even though everything he does is as valid as anything I do, it must be interesting for him to hear what I’m up to. It’s the same, I think when I hear Chris Thiles or Billy Strings and everybody that my music and group’s music has had an impact on.” Thiles and Strings line up again for the venturing “Slippery Eel.” And Strings steps further into the project, teaming up with David Grisman on “This Old Road,” and a one-on-one effort with Fleck on “Tentacle Dragon.” The latter pushes the Bluegrass bounds with the help of Strings’ undeniable guitar-driven interpretation.
“Béla Fleck is my hero,” Strings continued. “So, when I got the call to play on this record, I felt like a young Jedi who’s just gotten the rare opportunity to go train with master Yoda. Though it was a challenge to learn the music, it’s an honor to have been trusted to sit in the guitar chair for these songs. To play alongside these fantastic musicians in the studio was a dream come true, and I’ll never forget it.”
Similarly, “Wheels Up” captures another moment of collaboration more breakthrough successors. Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle step up to the plate in this more modern take on a traditional fiddle tune. Other moments like “Strider” and “Hug Point” see the pair checking in with their earliest influences while following Fleck’s avant-garde imprints.
“The album ended up being a wonderful combination of old friends that I pushed to a certain extent, and new people that I pushed maybe harder because they could take it — they wanted it,” says Fleck. “Not that my old friends aren’t capable, they totally are. But at a certain point, I start to feel bad about putting them through the things that I dream up that are time-consuming. It was nice to spread it out because nobody got burned out on the recording. If I had done the whole thing with one band, by the end of it, there would have been some casualties.”
Béla will be touring My Bluegrass Heart throughout 2021 with Sam Bush, Michael Cleveland, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, Edgar Meyer, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, Billy Strings, Bryan Sutton, Chris Thile, Molly Tuttle and more to be announced. Tour dates are below, and ticket information can be found on Fleck’s website.
Listen to Belá Fleck’s latest LP My Bluegrass Heart, here.
Credits: BY MADELINE CRONE (American Songwriter)