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Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn – 2014 (Rounder)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

It's almost a joke in search of a punchline: what happens when two banjo players get married? One thing you get is the indescribably cute kid pictured on the inside jacket of this first studio collaboration between banjo legend Bela Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn, their son Juno. At the time of their marriage, fiddler and longtime friend Casey Driessen famously joked that their first male offspring would be destined to become Holy Banjo Emperor, and in fact at the age of just over a year the boy is pictured with a banjo in his lap (well, a banjo ukelele to be precise) and reaching toward the camera with a self-aware expression that almost shouts "Get ready...I'm coming". And, with "Bye Bye Baby Blues" here, he's already got his first album credit.

Banjo players tend to be good-natured people who take all the jokes in stride, and Fleck and Washburn confirm this in the liner notes with the tongue-in-cheek disclaimer "No banjos were harmed in the making of this record" applied to the loving portrait of the seven banjos used on the disc. Fleck, of course, has been renowned for more than 30 years not only in bluegrass as part of Newgrass Revival, but also for literally taking the banjo into uncharted musical territory such as the jazz he and The Flecktones have propounded for the past quarter-century.

Washburn has been somewhat lesser-known on the larger scene, but her creds as a singer and banjo player in the world of old time music go back into the 1990s and include a couple of well-received solo albums as well as a stint as an original member of the all-female old time band Uncle Earl.

The jokes notwithstanding, the truth they demonstrate here is that the banjo in all its forms and styles - three-finger, clawhammer, fretless and more - is an astonishingly versatile instrument capable of going from brash, raucous joy to delicate, haunting despair in the space of a few bars, and Fleck and Washburn cover the dozen tracks here in arrangements - just the two of them with their banjos, no band - that are intriguing and charming throughout.

Washburn handles all the vocals, her sweet and plaintive voice rings nicely on her own "Ride To You." On "Shotgun Blues," another original, she's convincingly vengeful in turning the classic "murder ballad" around and giving the cad what he's got coming to him.

Fleck draws inspiration from his travels around the world with the Flecktones on the instrumental "New South Africa" and shows off his classical chops on "For Children: No. 3 Quasi Adagio, No. 10 Allegro Molto - Children's Dance," composed by his namesake Bela Bartok. The vote here though, for the most arresting tracks on the disc is for "And Am I Born To Die," drawn from the late Doc Watson and his father-in-law Gaither Carlton, and "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?" from the work of 1920s-era black street preacher Washington Phillips. Washburn's singing resonates perfectly with the material, and Fleck's backup is equally superb.