Béla Fleck gets back to basics with bluegrass in Breckenridge
Concert to feature Billy Contreras, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses and more
Béla Fleck is back. It has been 24 years since the acclaimed banjo player toured for a bluegrass album, and 2021’s “My Bluegrass Heart” is a return to Fleck’s roots. Now, the ever-expanding tour of that album is making a stop in Breckenridge.
At first, tour dates just went through last spring, but it currently goes into December. Sprinkled throughout are performances with his wife, Abigail Washburn, and concerts of Fleck and various orchestras.
“I would like to keep this in rotation indefinitely for a certain part every year because I’m playing bluegrass,” Fleck said. “I missed it.”
Fleck said his skill level has reached a point where he is playing bluegrass like he was in the ’80s. He likened it to jazz — one of the many other genres he also performs — in that it can’t just be played on the weekends to stay sharp.
“My Bluegrass Heart” is the third release in a trilogy that began with the 1988 album “Drive” and was followed by “The Bluegrass Sessions” in 1991. The first two albums had an all-star lineup of musicians like Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and others.
What: Béla Fleck: My Bluegrass Heart featuring Billy Contreras, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Shaun Richardson and Mark Schatz
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: $55 to $65. Visit BreckCreate.org to purchase
One reason for the long gap in albums is that Fleck said he didn’t want to do another without Rice. He unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity before Rice died in 2020. He was hesitant to move on, but Fleck eventually realized he could bring together a new generation of musicians who would lend their own unique talent, such as Billy Strings, Sierra Hull and Chris Thile.
The other reason was because of his son, Theodore. While he has recovered now, Fleck said at one point he was close to losing his son due to a liver disease. Fleck said the incident had him analyzing his priorities. With “My Bluegrass Heart,” Fleck could also record the album without traveling and just spend time at home with his family.
“I found myself wanting to really bond again with the people and the music that I started with and the community,” Fleck said.
The project as much about his collaborators as it is about him. On tour, Fleck has the flexibility to make substitutions in the lineup when the need arises, like prior professional or personal commitments. Fleck said he would keep one band if he could, but it wouldn’t be as good for the music. He appreciates how the group has been making time for him and putting aside their own tours for chunks at a time.
“I don’t want to be restricted and play when only certain people are able to play,” Fleck said. “… There is a whole world right now of phenomenal players and I can draw from all of them.”
In Breckenridge, he’ll be joined on stage by Hull — who played in town earlier this summer — as well as Billy Contreras, Justin Moses, Shaun Richardson and Mark Schatz. Fleck called Contreras one of the best jazz players on the fiddle and a great improviser.
“He is a neat treat to have because he understands this traditional music but he also has wide-open ears and he’s always exploring harmony and different rhythmic ideas,” Fleck said.
Likewise, multi-instrumentalist Moses is at home with the fiddle, banjo, Dobro and more.
“Every once in awhile he sort of just shows up on a different side of the stage playing a different instrument and holding his own with these ridiculous players, which he is one of,” Fleck said.
Richardson is relatively new to Fleck, while bass player Schatz and Fleck have known each other for decades. They first started playing together back in 1977 in a Boston bluegrass band before moving to Lexington, Kentucky, to start the band Spectrum. Fleck later joined New Grass Revival and eventually formed the Flecktones.
Fleck doesn’t stay stagnate. He has earned 15 Grammys in nine different genres, including country, pop, jazz and classical, on top of one Latin Grammy. “My Bluegrass Heart” is the last album to win, and Fleck is staying humble, saying that it just meant the right people were listening to the songs.
“It doesn’t mean you’re better than anybody else,” Fleck said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you made the best record.”
Yet, on the other hand, he is proud to finally have an award for bluegrass work.
“I wish I was too cool to care, but I’m not,” Fleck said, laughing.
Named after Hungarian composer Béla Bartók — with middle names coming from Austrian composer Anton Webern and Czech composer Leoš Janáček — the New Yorker was practically destined to enter a career in music. However, Fleck got introduced to the world of bluegrass through not-so-traditional means, when he heard Earl Scruggs play the theme song for the television show “Beverly Hillbillies” and then Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance.”
He recently followed in Scruggs footsteps, touring “My Bluegrass Heart” where bluegrass was born at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for PBS, and followed right after at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where Fleck’s high school graduation ceremony was.
For Fleck, the album and tour is all about showcasing incredible musicianship. The songs are instrumental because he said it allows the listener to have their own thoughts and images naturally appear in their mind.
“This music is very complex and dense, and you can get lost in it, you can fall into it and spend some time,” Fleck said.
Keen ears will notice voices bookending tracks, however. Fleck left in the studio banter as a tribute so diehard fans could pick out each individual contributor to the lengthy double album.
“It gives the music more life,” Fleck said. “As great as everybody plays in this and as slick as it ends up, by the time we really know the stuff, it needs a little bit of humanity. Otherwise, everything dies off and there’s silence.”
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