Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
I first became aware of banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck in college, when a friend of mine played me the Flecktones’ 2000 album, “Outbound.” The crossroads of funk, jazz and bluegrass on that album spoke to my soul on a primal level that, 18 years later, I still have not been able to shake.
Throughout his career, Fleck has transcended genres and broken musical barriers with his banjo as he’s released albums that cover classical, jazz, country and even African-roots music.
Given his penchant for taking the banjo out of its traditional context, it’s a little surprising that Fleck has returned to his folk/bluegrass roots in collaboration with his wife, Abigail Washburn (who is also a talented banjo player and singer-songwriter). They joined forces on 2016’s “Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn,” and again this year on their latest album, “Echo in the Valley,” a worthy follow-up that showcases unparalleled instrumentation without sacrificing catchy melodies and strong songwriting.
Fleck’s return to traditional roots provides a wealth of clever banjo rolls and hummable lead lines that fans of his music have come to love over the years. Washburn’s soaring vocals and storytelling lyrics are delivered with a mixture of both carefree whimsy and deep-seated longing that carry listeners through themes of missing home (“Take Me to Harlan” and “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”), soul searching (“On the Winding Road”) and saying goodbye (“Let it Go”).
Spiritual themes of generosity and sharing the burdens of others are peppered throughout the album. “Over the Divide” opens the album as a cry for those who find themselves “troubled” and “kick(ed) when they’re down.” Washburn sings, “Listen to the preachers callin’ to the free/Share the Kingdom, share the keys,” a direct reminder to us in the pews about who it is that God calls us to share God’s love with. Another standout song is the semi-melancholic “If I Could Talk to a Younger Me,” a wonderful reflection on aging and the fleeting nature of earthly life. One can almost hear the voice of the preacher in Ecclesiastes as Washburn sings, “This time on earth it moves so fast/And when it’s gone, when it’s gone/When it’s gone, when it’s gone.”
I have long considered Béla Fleck one of my musical heroes, both because of his musicianship and his ability to collaborate with others. Indeed, the ability of Fleck and Washburn to complement each other so beautifully on every track of “Echo in the Valley” is a testament to the generous and welcoming musical experience they’ve created on this album. Lyrically, the album offers words of hope and presence for those struggling with loneliness, hardship and displacement. Each song feels like an invitation to empathetic and compassionate companionship for the spiritually seeking who are longing for a place to call home. All in all, “Echo in the Valley” is a great album for longtime fans of both artists and for new listeners looking for something to speak to the wander in their hearts.
JOSHUA YOUNG serves as the director worship and music ministries at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in Texas and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He is married to Rachel, who regularly contributes to the Outlook Outpost blog and also serves on staff at Clear Lake Church, and is a father to 1-year-old Ezekiel.