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Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Echo in the Valley – 2017 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

With decades of experience between them, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn could be forgiven for putting together a simple collection of traditional songs for their second collaboration. But, nobody has ever accused Fleck and Washburn of standing pat, so it should not surprise that this new album of (mostly) original songs is fresh and satisfying.

"Echoes In The Valley" is spare, yet complex. Each cut (save for an instrumental medley midway through that anchored by Fleck's "Big Country") depends on a delightful admixture of Washburn's vocals and the duo's differing banjo styles. Washburn's voice is sweet and robust throughout. On several cuts, her leads are enhanced by simple vocal embellishments that seem like fiddle lines in context. Fleck's accompaniment and technique are startling in their clarity.

Most of the songs were written by the couple and recorded in their home studio. There's some strong writing afoot. "Let It Go" packs a wallop as it examines the inexorable passage of time and how people, inevitably, move on from one stage of life to another. Washburn says it was written about their young son, Juno. Its sentiment applies equally to moving on from love or from the mortal coil.

There's also a strong element of pushing back - on the world, on the arrogance of privilege. "Over The Divide," which features lovely banjo figures from Fleck, is also a lament for reason. So too, "Don't Let It Bring You Down" challenges the crush of daily divisiveness and seeks solace in the simple aspects of life. "Come All You Coal Miners" is a rich interpretation of a mountain plaint from the point of view of a coal miner's wife. It acts as a stiff blow to the gut in an era in which some seek to romanticize the deadly mechanistic extraction of a 19th century fuel.

Fleck produced this collection and his intelligent sound design, so evident on Sierra Hull's "Weighted Mind," is on full display here. It's intentional and subtle, and the vibe is bright, but not jarring. For an album that features banjos and its primary non-vocal instrumentation, that's an accomplishment.

The title of the CD derives from the lyrics of "Take Me To Harlan" a complex tune about leaving (and returning) home. Fleck and Washburn have created new, powerful music that will persist.