The new self-titled album by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn is a duet by two of the best musicians currently active on the roots music scene of the USA. Abigail Washburn is already known to readers of this blog and her solo album City of Refuge was reviewed here on its release in 2011. She attracted attention at that time because of her singing, banjo playing and songwriting which draws on her American heritage as well as influences from her experiences in China.
Bela Fleck is one of the greatest banjo players and an award-winning musician whose work encompasses many different genres. On this album the pair use seven different banjos and no other instruments or musicians are involved. But it would be a mistake to think that this is limiting in any way or that it’s an album for banjo obsessives. The range of their playing is quite astonishing and the nine songs and three instrumentals are given space to breathe in arrangements that are never flashy or showy.
Washburn sings all of the songs in her immediately recognisable style and they include both traditional and new compositions. Her very moving ‘Ride to You’ is sad and inspiring at the same time and an early high point while Fleck’s ‘What’cha Gonna Do’ is his response to the recent devastating tsunamis in Asia. Washburn’s ‘Shotgun Blues’ takes the Appalachian murder ballad genre and rewrites it to “seek retribution for all the ladies”.
Among several traditional songs ‘And Am I Born to Die’ (learned from a recording by Doc Watson) is outstanding with its chillingly delivered vocal from Washburn. This and several other songs reflect on matters of life and death which is an underlying theme running through the album. It sounds at times strange and familiar, ancient and modern but ultimately this is timeless music made by two remarkable people.
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn is released by Rounder Records.