Bela Fleck is renowned as a banjo player who takes the instrument places far beyond its folk and bluegrass roots, into classical, rock and even jazz fusion.
But on “Echo in the Valley,” Fleck’s upcoming third album as a duo with his wife, Abigail Washburn, Fleck winds up in the surprisingly traditional realm of protest music.
“As someone once put it, may you live in interesting times,” Fleck said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “Well, we do, and you must admit that whatever your viewpoint. And for music to not reflect that would take a concerted effort at avoiding reality. There are a lot of things popping up and we wanted to find a way to acknowledge that and also point at some good things. Subtly let our viewpoint be known.”
Fleck and Washburn are among the star attractions of this weekend’s World of Bluegrass festivities in Raleigh. They’re serving as this year’s IBMA Awards show co-hosts Sept. 28. The next night, they’ll play at Wide Open Bluegrass at Red Hat Amphitheater.
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Fleck has won 16 Grammy Awards, including one with his wife in 2016 for Best Folk Album. He’s won several IBMA Awards too, including Banjo Performer of the Year in 1990.
The awards show may or may not involve an appearance by Juno, the couple’s 4-year-old son, although Fleck reports that his son is a lot more interested in golf than music nowadays. But given Fleck and Washburn’s usual onstage banter – in which they riff on husbands, wives, kids and great divides between old-time and bluegrass, among other things – it should be a highly amusing evening.
“We have a couple of things we’re developing,” Fleck said. “There’s some pressure to live up to the high humor of past IBMA Award shows, and we’ll do our best to deliver something worthwhile.”
The theme of the show is the Bluegrass Songbook, “songs that get played over and over,” Fleck said.
“You can go to Japan, Australia, the Czech Republic or anywhere else and everybody knows the same songs,” he said. “Like ‘My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains,’ the old Clarence Ashley song. We did that one on the record and took it pretty far from its roots, in more of a blues direction.”
On “Echo in the Valley,” which is due Oct. 20, the song “Over the Divide” is noteworthy because it seems ripped from the headlines. The song was inspired by Hans Breuer, an Austrian shepherd who ferried Syrian refugees to safety – in part because their plight reminded him of Breuer’s own Jewish heritage.
“It’s awkward as a performer,” he said. “You’re in a place where your opinions get more attention. So we’re cautious about that. We don’t want to be divisive or run anybody off. But music is about expression and that song is about refugees, which is where the world is at right now.”
Other songs deal with the hazards of coal mining (“Come All You Coal Miners”), parental milestones (“Let It Go”) and clogging – “Take Me to Harlan,” on which Washburn generally clogs while singing.
“I’ve never been as natural a performer as Abby,” Fleck said. “I’m good at playing my instrument and putting together a show that works and flows. It’s important that I don’t disappear into the background even though I’m not singing. She’s more verbal and comfortable in front of people while I’m shyer. So she can be the ‘straight man’ while I bring the snark. I actually talk more onstage with her than anywhere else.”
What: Wide Open Bluegrass with Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Kruger Brothers, Flatt Lonesome, Mark O’Connor and others
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh