Sure, in the abstract, a banjo duo might seem like a musical concept beset by limitations. But when the banjo players cast in those roles are Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn—she with the earthy sophistication of a postmodern, old-time singer-songwriter, he with the virtuosic, jazz-to-classical ingenuity of an iconic instrumentalist and composer with bluegrass roots—it’s a different matter entirely. There’s no denying that theirs is a one-of-a-kind pairing, with one-of-a-kind possibilities. It was inevitable and eagerly anticipated by fans of tradition-tweaking acoustic fare that these partners in music and life (who married in 2009) would eventually do a full-fledged project together. Their debut album as a duo, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, is the 2016 Grammy Award winner for Best Folk Album.
Fleck, a fifteen-time Grammy winner, has devoted time away from his standard-setting ensemble, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, to a staggeringly broad array of musical experiments, from writing a concerto for the Nashville Symphony to exploring the banjo’s African roots to playing jazz duos with Chick Corea. Washburn has drawn critical acclaim for her solo albums, done fascinating work in folk musical diplomacy in China, presented an original theatrical production, contributed to singular side groups such as Uncle Earl and The Wu-Force, and become quite a live draw.