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Banjo star Bela Fleck talks his new album and playing Carnegie Hall



The very first bluegrass concert at Carnegie Hall was in 1962. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were the headliners with their band The Foggy Mountain Boys.


FOGGY MOUNTAIN BOYS: (Singing) I stand on the corner with the lowdown blues, a great big hole in the bottom of my shoe. Honey, let me be your salty dog.

GURA: It's been almost 60 years since then, but next weekend, banjo player Bela Fleck is bringing bluegrass back to that storied stage on West 57th Street. He'll be joined by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, more than a dozen musicians altogether. And they'll perform selections from Bela Fleck's newest album called "My Bluegrass Heart."


GURA: Bela Fleck joins us now. And, Bela, it's great to talk to you.

BELA FLECK: Great to be with you. How are you doing?

GURA: I'm good. You know, I play the fiddle, so I know this is a rare thing. On this track, called "The Old North Woods," you've got three fiddlers. You got an embarrassment of riches there.

FLECK: For sure. The whole album is an embarrassment of riches, actually.

GURA: I want to go back to that concert in 1962. And you were a kid at the time. But I wonder, as you look back at the evolution of bluegrass music, how important that moment was when Flatt and Scruggs and their band came to Carnegie Hall.

FLECK: Oh, it was huge. It had a huge impact on that world, and it also kind of elevated bluegrass to a stature it hadn't previously been considered, such an important musical offering. And I had that record, and it blew me away. Earl Scruggs on that record is just a god. And the band sound that they had was so great. The music was great. The event was great - big impact on the - on our bluegrass world.

GURA: You've been away from bluegrass for a number of years. I think it's been about 20 years since the second album in this trilogy of bluegrass albums. And I wonder what brought you back to bluegrass in 2019. What made you start thinking about doing an album like this again?

FLECK: I'd been thinking about doing it for a long, long time. And the big impediment was that I couldn't get Tony Rice.

GURA: Tony Rice passed away just about a year ago.

FLECK: Yeah. And Tony Rice was, like - the thing about Tony Rice as a guitar player is he always made to play better than you thought you could. And he was my secret weapon on those first two albums because I felt like I could play bluegrass with him in a way that I couldn't with anyone else.


FLECK: He could drive a bluegrass band from the guitar. And very few people know how to do that.


FLECK: As a years were going by and he was becoming less available and more of a recluse - and it just was becoming clear I wasn't going to be able to get him. I was starting to mull over other ideas. And then we had a very serious health crisis with one of my children. Our little Theodore had a very scary hospital stay. And, you know, we were really in fear of losing him. And for some reason, it was after that that I felt compelled to make this record. I don't still totally understand the connection, but there is a big connection. It had something to do with touching base with a community. It had a feeling of nothing is forever. A lot of my favorite people - we're all getting older. Tony was now clearly not possible anymore. And it could happen to any of us. And then there was also this whole crop of new people I was really interested in connecting with.

GURA: And Theodore is doing all right? He's doing all right now?

FLECK: He's doing great. Yeah, no, he's doing great. And we got - we were very fortunate.


GURA: I imagine it was a whole lot of fun just trying to figure out who should play with whom, just setting up the groups on the record.

FLECK: It was. You know, it wasn't something I planned in a large - you know, I didn't have the overview in mind. I just started recording, and I kept recording. And then I thought, well, I got to get so-and-so. They're coming through town. Or whoa, why don't I have Sierra and Molly on here? And, you know, things just developed.

GURA: We're talking about Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle. You sought out new players deliberately here, including these two women. Let's take a listen to one piece from the album, "Hug Point."


GURA: Of course, there are many women who are great bluegrass musicians. But as you point out in the liner notes with this album, it's been a boys club for some time. And I wonder how you approached the album in that way, kind of trying to make a corrective for that.

FLECK: Well, I wasn't thinking about that, to be honest. And Abigail is the one who brought it up to me. She said, you know...

GURA: This is your wife.

FLECK: My wife, Abigail Washburn. She said, you know, I don't want to meddle here, but - and I said, oh, gosh, I've got some kind of unconscious bias here. They definitely belong on this record. And so I was able to correct it before it was too late. And I'm really glad because they contributed, you know, in a wonderful way. And I have to say one thing for folks out there. This is an all-instrumental record. You know, there are - there is a lot of bluegrass out there that is vocal. And this is not that. This is really kind of - for me, it's like a celebration or even a love letter to the the great bluegrass instrumentalists that are out there playing right now.

And that - you know, that whole scene is maybe not highly rewarded. You know, Steve Martin started a prize 'cause he felt like banjo players don't get - like, it takes the same amount of work to become a great banjo player maybe as becoming an astrophysicist, you know, or something like that. But they don't get paid for it, you know? So the bluegrass instrumental world is just a very highly honed world. These people are incredible musicians.

GURA: Banjo player Bela Fleck playing Carnegie Hall next weekend. His newest album is called "My Bluegrass Heart." Bela, thanks very much.

FLECK: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK'S "PSALM 136") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.