Béla Fleck: Crossing the Tracks

[20 March 2006]

By Lou Friedman

Banjos Equal Bluegrass -- Past or Present

Did you know the banjo originated in Africa, and was brought over by slaves? Yet somehow, the instrument crossed a few divides to come to rest as a symbol of bluegrass. Bluegrass is a tricky genre, by nature. It’s not country, per se, nor is it blues, though it has the frequently heavy lyrical content of both. Yet bluegrass has a tendency to be somewhat upbeat, musically. I mean, how often does hearing a banjo make you frown? Along with the aforementioned country and blues, it’s one of the oldest genres in the music world. And yet, someone had the audacity to take this one-dimensional instrument and hightail it into the world of jazz, and make it successful there, too. That scoundrel is Béla Fleck.

Fleck was (and still is) an inquisitive innovator when it comes to music. Not only has he tackled the nuances of jazz, but he has also used his musical weapon of choice to delve (successfully) into the realm of straightforward classical music as well (collaborating with Edgar Meyer). But very few just pick up the banjo and learn it without first playing the music of the banjo’s adopted roots, bluegrass. Fleck, who learned at the altar of fellow bluegrass banjoist Tony Trischka, was eager to get started on his chosen musical path. At the time, Rounder Records was noted for its eclectic roster of artists, and when they heard Fleck’s work, they immediately signed him. And at the tender age of 20, Fleck released his first album for Rounder, ironically and appropriately titled Crossing the Tracks.

But hell, this wasn’t just any ol’ bluegrass record—this was a record put out by a confident 20-year old kid, who had help from some of the genre’s most noted figures: Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. It also carried more than just the standard bluegrass. Even with his first album, there were signs that Fleck was already thinking of taking his banjo to places where nobody dared visit before.

The opening track, the Flatt-Scruggs standard “Dear Old Dixie”, showcases Fleck’s talents right away. His picking and fretwork are already on par with the two old-time masters, but it’s the very next track that drops a strong hint of his future. The self-penned “Inman Square” doesn’t have the bass work of Roy Wooten or the drumitar sounds of Futureman, but the songs melodic run and jazz noodling (though in a bluegrass setting) could have comfortably fit on one of Fleck’s first two major jazz releases, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, or UFO Tofu. Fleck wrote five of the 11 songs on Crossing the Tracks, and arranged three other traditional tunes. Some of Fleck’s originals stick to the somewhat “formula sounds” of bluegrass (“Texas Barbeque” and the title song, for instance), while the aforementioned “Inman Square” and the lower-key “Twilight” head towards jazz.  The biggest clue was Fleck’s re-working and strong cover of the Chick Corea classic, “Spain”. (Who would have thought a Chick Corea song could be reworked for a banjo?)

Fleck’s band, which features Bush (fiddle), Russ Barenberg (guitar), Bob Applebaum (mandolin) and Mark Schatz (upright bass), sound solid throughout. Douglas, who played Dobro on two tracks, and vocalist Pat Enright, who sang on two others, both enhance the album. This is a cornerstone and a marker of the start of Béla Fleck’s musical career / adventure. Even back in 1979, there were signs that Fleck wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill picker. He was a visionary before his time, and he wasted no time setting the ball in motion. What makes Crossing the Tracks such an endearing and enjoyable listen is the knowledge that even if Béla Fleck started his career on the ground floor (so-to-speak), he was still a few stories above everyone else.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/bela_fleck_crossing_the_tracks/