Considered to be the undisputed “first couple of banjo”, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn have showcased the intimacy and rich musicality of their chosen instrument since their self-titled 2014 debut. The two take opposing approaches to the banjo: Fleck plays Scruggs style, an intricate method of fingerpicked arpeggiations and blistering runs, while Washburn focuses more on propulsive rhythms and harmonic weight with her preferred clawhammer style. Fusing their respective approaches with Washburn’s rich, earthy voice and their unified approach to tradition and innovation the couple reflects a striking fusion of folk, bluegrass, and acoustic influences.
Their latest, Echo in the Valley, continues their exploration of original tunes and reinvigorated folk classics. Aside from some slight studio processing, the two take a “front porch” approach to the album. Every sound on the record comes from Fleck and Washburn, from their voices, banjos, or body percussion. It infuses the album with an immediacy and vitality that would otherwise sound tainted by studio trickery and digital manipulation. Brandishing seven different banjos, from modern and historical models all the way to a recently restored 1905 bass banjo, Echo in the Valley is an exceptional fusion of the traditional and the innovative.
“Over the Divide” opens the album with intricate counterpoint between Fleck and Washburn. It’s a perfect example of how complex the banjo tradition can be: a swirl of arpeggios and melodies, each note dancing in a whirl of complimenting and contrasting ideas. Washburn’s voice rises above the banjo counterpoint, simple and unadorned yet no less rich or beautiful. Additionally, her light and rhythmic stomping features in “Take Me to Harlan” alongside Fleck’s flittering and playfully dissonant comping. Washburn’s footwork gives the tune an earthy texture, a refreshing color that adds a new dimension to Echo’s overall aesthetic.
Given the front porch concept, it’s easy to assume this sensibility grows tired over the album’s eleven tracks. Quite the opposite: the sonic spectrum never grows old or feels stale. Working with a variety of banjos and some light mixing makes Echo a more lavish affair than typical traditional or folk albums. Washburn’s distorted chords and the hypnotic layering of banjo and voice give “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” a dark edge. Likewise, the use of bass banjo on “Let It Go” allows the duo to explore deeper ranges and a wider sense of space. With some dirty slide work from Fleck “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” becomes a lumbering, bluesy affair.
Much of what the duo does on Echo exploits the versatility of the banjo. That comes as no surprise considering Fleck’s career trajectory of exploring the instrument’s musical origins (African), adapted style (bluegrass), and subversion of cultural expectations (jazz, classical). With their melody of “Sally in the Garden”, “Big Country”, and “Molly Put the Kettle On” the duo blends folk and modern tunes into a virtuosic showpiece of subtle dynamic flair and burning melodies. In this way, Fleck and Washburn honor the banjo by reflecting its universal adaptability.
Echo in the Valley makes mountains out of its bare musical elements. Simple in approach but lush in output, Fleck and Washburn reflect the flexibility and beauty in what a banjo duo can do.