They just returned to their home in Nashville from the West Coast, where they played eight shows, in part as an experiment in parenting.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn welcomed their second child, Theodore Wilder Washburn Fleck, in June. Their older boy, Juno, is five and a great companion on the road, Washburn said. But it’s hard to know how to balance touring and recording with family obligations.
Fleck and Washburn are banjo masters — he’s an Earl Scruggs-style three-finger picker; she’s a clawhammer player — who found one another at a square dance (he was playing, she was dancing) and married in 2009. Since then, they have developed a duo act and recorded two full-length albums, receiving critical acclaim.
The couple will take the stage at the Charleston Music Hall for an 8 p.m. performance on Jan. 13. Tickets are $39.50-$59.50 and available at www.charlestonmusichall.com.
Their backgrounds are pretty different. Fleck’s a New Yorker who became enamored with the banjo as a kid, thanks to the theme of the “Beverly Hillbillies,” and went on to become a virtuoso player intent on all sorts of experimentation. He has played nearly every style of music, from bluegrass and folk to jazz and classical. Fleck was a member of the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival in the 1980s and ’90s, then formed the Flecktones, featuring Roy and Victor Wooten.
Over the years, Fleck, 60, has performed with bassist Edgar Meyer, pianist Chick Corea and many others. In 2009, he traveled to several countries in Africa to examine the roots of his instrument and discover a variety of music by local artists. A remarkable documentary called “Throw Down Your Heart” and soundtrack CD was the result. He continues to collaborate with master musicians across genres.
In the late 1990s, Washburn, 41, majored in East Asian studies in college, learned Mandarin Chinese and spent some time in China with the intention of pursing international law at Beijing University. But then the banjo asserted itself and bluegrass derailed her career plans, forcing her onto another auspicious track.
Their two styles are very different, and not usually performed together. He wears three finger picks and strokes down with his thumb and up with his index and middle fingers. She strokes down, in sequence, using the same three fingers, unadorned.
His fast-picking style enables him to play chromatic scales and, therefore, all sorts of melodies. Her percussive style is rooted in Appalachia and depends on a variety of rhythmic and melodic patterns, often repeated.
So when they play together, he often accompanies her, occasionally adding flourishes or offering a lead solo. She maintains a rhythmic and harmonic core and often sings in a style at once ethereal and emotional. It turns out they work well together.
And they are together more often these days, searching for a balance between their professional and personal lives, and between the need to generate income by touring and the need to avoid touring too much.
“It’s harder to travel and tour as much as we did,” Fleck said. So maybe they will limit time on the road to half the year. “Having an infant is particularly taxing on the mother. She shouldn’t feel she needs to be out touring as much as before. The reason should be because it’s fun and healthy and good. We have to learn how to manage it.”
Fleck plans to play gigs with the Flecktones, Corea, Meyer and others in the months to come, but those dates are likely to be special occasions, not tours, and that will help pay for all the new baby stuff.
But don’t assume Washburn will remain at home. Her schedule includes not just performances with guzheng player and vocalist Wu Fei (with whom she just finished a record), the Sparrow Quartet and others, but the obligation of a new fellowship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. There, she will work with the Carolina Performing Arts and three other artists to collaborate with professors in various disciplines, forging connections between their subjects and the arts.
“The project is about how to change the rhythm of listening to one another, using silence to punctuate expression,” Washburn said. People today are too reactionary. “We need a different cadence of communication.”
Listening to her speak, one detects a blend of American gumption and Zen Buddhism (in which she has trained), a calm energy, an intensity illustrated best by the blue flame, not a red blaze.
On stage, she is the one who does most of the talking. He will throw in a joke or two, smile and pluck away at his banjo with remarkable proficiency. Perhaps no one is so versatile, so accomplished on this instrument. Fleck’s talent is a combination of great technique and an immense curiosity, the kind that propels him around the world to discover new music and find his place in it.
In Africa, he was careful not to push or intimidate others, he said.
“Folk musicians can get shut down with new information,” he said. “People are used to playing one kind of music. For me it was an opportunity to learn from it and see how it would impact my playing. I tend to learn by doing. I don’t sit and mull things over. I have to have my instrument in my hands from the beginning.”
The learning never stops, especially when he plays with Washburn. He is delighted with her authentic voice, with her ability to grab hold of the heart, to wring the truth out of a song. And she is delighted with the prowess of his accompaniment, his amazing embellishments, his tasteful layerings of sound.
At every show, they sell merchandise — CDs, T-shirts and the like — and give away the proceeds to a local charity that serves children in some way or defends the environment, Fleck said. And they raffle off a banjo-ukulele. That adds incentive to see them play at the Music Hall on Jan. 13.
“Sometimes we make a lot of money,” he said.