Béla Fleck: Crossing the Tracks

Lou Friedman

Even when Béla Fleck was a mere tyke in the music industry, he was already starting to take his banjo on journeys off the bluegrass trail. Here's where his story begins.

Béla Fleck

Crossing the Tracks

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2005-10-25
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.