Another Color Grass
Bela Fleck creates a new kind of stringed music with the Flecktones.
Thursday, November 4, 2004
When legendary banjo player Bela Fleck became interested in the stringed instrument, it was not after hearing a traditional number like “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Instead, the New York City-born Fleck was seduced by the sounds of the banjo after hearing Flatt & Scruggs’ “Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song for the ‘60s television show The Beverly Hillbillies. In a phone interview, Fleck, who is in Nashville, tells me what he liked about the tune. “It wasn’t the song,” he says. “It was the banjo.”
It seems apt that Fleck was drawn to the banjo by a TV theme instead of a more traditional number. With his three-person backing band, the Flecktones, a lot of his recorded work sounds more like jazz or the work of a very talented jam band than traditional bluegrass music.
A few years after Fleck’s grandfather bought him a banjo at a garage sale, the young picker moved to Boston and started playing with a group called the Tasty Licks. “I would call it progressive northern bluegrass,” he says of the group’s output.
In 1979, the Tasty Licks called it quits, and three years later, Fleck joined the New Grass Revival with the celebrated mandolin player Sam Bush and Dobro player Jerry Douglas. “I learned so much playing with those guys,” he says. “It was almost like a rock band with bluegrass instruments.”
After performing with New Grass Revival for seven years, Fleck was asked to play the music for the Lonesome Pine Special, a program on PBS television. In response, the banjo player recruited bassist Victor Wooten, multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy—who later left the group and was replaced by Jeff Coffin—and Roy “Future Man” Wooten, who played an electronic drum shaped like a guitar. With the new Flecktones, Fleck realized he was onto something special that eventually caused him to disband New Grass Revival. “This proved to be too great an opportunity to pass up: to do my music with incredible musicians,” he says.
Last year, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones released their ninth album, a sprawling three-CD set titled Little Worlds, which features a wide variety of guest musicians including Bobby McFerrin, Derek Trucks, The Chieftans, Nickel Creek and Branford Marsalis. (Also, the group released Ten From Little Worlds, a CD with 10 selections culled from Little Worlds.)
In addition to the funky jazz-tinged “Snatchin’” and the percussion-heavy “Next,” the album has an odd reinterpretation of the “Ballad of Jed Clampett” with guest vocalists Divinity and Bobby McFerrin. “I have done it before but never like this,” Fleck says of the song. “I had a goofy idea that someone should rap on it.”
Though Fleck says another album with the Flecktones is currently halfway done, don’t expect the release in stores for another year. But, in the meantime, fans will be able to hear some new songs at the upcoming Sunset Center show.
When asked to describe the new music, Fleck does not even try. “It’s hard to describe instrumental music,” he says. “You have to hear it. The description is never as good as it is.”
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones play the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel, Tuesday at 8pm. $38. 620-2040.