Monsters Of Banjo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, banjo superstars and a couple of 10 years, speak with NPR's Arun Rath about why they waited so long to make their first album together.
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Béla Fleck And Abigail Washburn On Teaming Up, Finally

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Béla Fleck And Abigail Washburn On Teaming Up, Finally

Béla Fleck And Abigail Washburn On Teaming Up, Finally

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here's a story that's almost too perfect. The king of the banjo, a man who's expanded the range of the instrument from bluegrass through new grass to funk and jazz and rock and classical, meets the queen of the banjo, a woman who's mastered and revitalized old-timey, clawhammer style playing and has fused her banjo-playing with Chinese music. The king and queen fall in love, get married and have a baby. Well, that's the real-life story of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. And even though they've been a couple for 10 years, this is the first album they've recorded together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE TO U")

ABIGAIL WASHBURN: (Singing) Remember my long brown hair and the way I loved you everywhere. Oh, oh me oh my, where you going without me?

RATH: Abigail Washburn says she was apprehensive about recording with her husband back when they first started dating because she was still so new on the scene.

WASHBURN: You know, Bela's got this really established, amazing career - 15 Grammys and counting - and, you know, I was a real newbie.

BELA FLECK: Yeah, Abby wanted to go out and make her own bones, you know, before we did something together so that people wouldn't say oh, Bela's just playing with his girlfriend. You know...

WASHBURN: Yeah.

FLECK: ...She needed to have her own credibility and stuff, so she's really done that. And in the last year, she's gone out there and worked the roads, had bands together, done a Ted talk, did a commencement speech. And she's a known quantity out there in a much bigger way. So now it's - when people hear oh, they're playing together, they don't know we're married necessarily. They go oh, I'm curious what that would be like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE TO U")

WASHBURN: (Singing) Ooh, on my ride to you. On my ride to you. Where am I going to go when you're gone?

RATH: You have a son now, Juno. What was - you know, I know having a newborn is intense. So it's kind of amazing that you have this album while you had a newborn in the house because you have a studio...

WASHBURN: Good point.

RATH: ...Where you live, right?

FLECK: Yeah.

WASHBURN: Yeah.

FLECK: The great thing for us is, you know, we could set up the mics, get everything going and then extricate Abby from Juno, go downstairs and do some work.

FLECK: Yeah, when you're nursing every three hours, it's really hard to, you know, get out. So when you're nursing every three hours for 45 minutes, so we would - yeah, I would just sort of get done with the nursing and hand him over to grandma and run downstairs and try to record for an hour.

And I'll admit, it was really hard, because on top of the nursing all through the night and the sleep deprivation, I was cross-eyed a lot of the time. But we just took it in little - little bits as we could. And I'm pretty amazed also that we, within the year, made a record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BIRDIE")

WASHBURN: (Singing) Two little birdies all in the nest, one little birdie's just taking his rest. Other little birdie jumps in the sky. Fly little birdie, oh fly little birdie. Why'd you fly so soon?

RATH: I'm sure you guys saw this. There's a hilarious piece on the website The Bluegrass Intelligencer...

WASHBURN: Oh yeah.

RATH: ...that read (reading) after lengthy negotiations between the two camps, banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have agreed to marry one another, advancing their long campaign to unify the progressive and old-time banjo empires under a single sovereign ruler.

(LAUGHTER)

FLECK: And Juno is here.

RATH: Yeah.

FLECK: And he's prepared to rule. He's prepared. We're teaching him how to rule.

WASHBURN: He's learning how to eat and walk. And next he will be the banjo king.

FLECK: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHBURN: No pressure.

FLECK: We're on tour with him. This is the first time we've had him on tour since he's walking. And we're on a tour bus. And he does not want to sit down. And so the bus is careening on the highway. And he's trying to walk all around the bus. And we're trying to block him so that if the bus hits the brakes, he'll hit one of us instead - and he just keeps...

WASHBURN: Yeah.

FLECK: trying to get us - around us.

WASHBURN: Yeah.

RATH: You're suddenly aware of all the sharp edges on everything.

WASHBURN: Yes.

FLECK: And the buses are mostly soft. That's the good part about touring buses.

WASHBURN: That's true.

FLECK: They're made for drunken musicians to not hurt themselves in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE, BYE BABY BLUES")

WASHBURN: (Singing) And it's bye, bye pretty baby, baby bye-bye. Bye-bye pretty baby, baby bye-bye. Well, I'm probably not going to see any more. May God bless you everywhere you go. And it's bye, bye pretty baby, baby bye-bye.

RATH: I'm speaking with Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn about their new eponymous album. I've always wanted to use that word.

WASHBURN: It's a fun word, isn't it? It's a fun word.

FLECK: And that's what you do when nobody likes the titles you've come up with.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Do you have some rejected titles for this album?

WASHBURN: That's the truth. We do, we do. We shouldn't tell you though.

RATH: What got rejected?

WASHBURN: Nobody liked them because they were all about banjos.

FLECK: Yeah.

WASHBURN: Yeah.

FLECK: Abby's brother is in marketing and he said you can't use the word banjo on this album. You can't use it. And we're like...

WASHBURN: But - but it's a banjo album. (Laughter).

FLECK: It's a banjo album. What are you going to - he said yeah, but there's too many people have too many, you know, preconceptions about the banjo. And I was like oh.

WASHBURN: So we - we dropped our ideas, which were "Banjo, Banjo," right? Doesn't that describe the record? Don't you love that name? Come on, Arun.

RATH: "Banjo, Banjo" was great.

FLECK: Then there was "Banjo Love," which - which really revolted a lot of people.

(LAUGHTER)

FLECK: So we - we...

WASHBURN: There were literally some, like, gag noises that would come up when we mention that name, so...

FLECK: Yeah, so that's - that's why we named it after our names.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Well, let's talk about one song in particular. It's a song of Abby's. It's called "Shotgun Blues." Tell us about the song because it's a different kind of murder ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOTGUN BLUES")

WASHBURN: (Singing) If I had a shotgun.

WASHBURN: It's a murder ballad where no one actually dies. It's my ballad of revenge. See, I love murder ballads - old Appalachian murder ballads and story songs. And I quickly came to notice, especially when I was in the band Uncle Earl, which is an all-female string band, we would listen to these murder ballads. And we'd note that it was always the woman who died. So I started thinking about this idea of, in a song, being able to go back and catch that nasty old man before he got to that woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOTGUN BLUES")

WASHBURN: (Singing) If I had a shotgun, you'd fall down on your knees. I get you talking and you'd start begging please.

WASHBURN: And intimidate him into being a better person.

(LAUGHTER)

FLECK: She just gives him a good talking to.

WASHBURN: He gets a real good talking to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOTGUN BLUES")

WASHBURN: (Singing) So give me your shotgun. And don't you run now because if you run now, you know what I'd have to do.

RATH: That's Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Their new album is called "Banjo Love" and it comes out on Tuesday.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHBURN: No.

FLECK: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

RATH: That was - that was a delayed reaction. That was what I wanted.

>>FLECK I was like what?

RATH: Their new album is self-titled and it comes out on Tuesday. Bela, Abby, thanks so much.

FLECK: That was a dirty trick.

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