Bela Fleck has been on an epic journey over the past year. He emerged from Banjo House Lockdown with his wife and banjo collaborator Abigail Washburn and their two sons in tow as they performed their first live performance in over a year at last summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“We were so happy to be back in Telluride and the reduced crowd has actually made things a lot easier as our top priority is keeping our kids safe from COVID,” Fleck says of the final leg of his journey back to the Box Canyon Bluegrass Hub. “Being outside and listening to music and making music was just amazing. And it was nice to be there for two weeks because we got used to the altitude well, which doesn’t usually happen.”
Telluride is a touchstone for Fleck each year, whether he’s touring in a duet with Abigail, with his band The Flecktones, with symphony orchestras, or with jazz icons like the late Chick Corea, all of whom Bela brought to the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage in City Park. In 2021, Fleck and his Telluride House Band colleagues – Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton – previewed some new Fleck songs from “My Bluegrass Heart,” and revealed later that summer Fleck released the album on stage in front of RockyGrass and embarked on a multi-phase tour with rotating ensembles of elite pickers that both inspired and inspired his career.
“RockyGrass was pretty exciting because of the new band’s debut,” says Fleck. “These guys worked their ass off to make this first show one that we can all be very proud of. It felt like all the hard work had paid off and it couldn’t have gone better. But now that we’ve been playing this music for almost a year, it’s really taken to another level. I am thrilled to be playing on the Telluride main stage with this band, this material and the special guests we will be including. It’s a place where the musicians can really show their skills and it feels like everyone puts their heart and soul into it.”
“My Bluegrass Heart” earned Fleck his 16th Grammy Award in his 12th category, the first he won in a true “bluegrass” category. The album owes a debt to musical relationships born and bred on stage in Telluride and the unique approach to bluegrass that Fleck calls “the root of my musical soul.”
“My freshman year (with Telluride Bluegrass) would have been 1982 and performing there with New Grass Revival was an incredible experience, my entry into the big bluegrass world,” he recalls. “Over the years I’ve found my own identity outside of the band, but those nine years with New Grass were formative for me and I just loved it.”
It was a time when he says he learned more about music than he ever had in his life. Being exposed to such a wide range of musicians who made the pilgrimage to Telluride each year provided him with additional insights into his expanding musical horizons, and no matter what direction his musical explorations took him, they kept coming back to Telluride.
“Incredibly, as I transitioned into new projects, Telluride continued to embrace my music and I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to come back and do my thing every year,” Fleck explains of his post-New Grass years. “I guess I grew up in Telluride and am still growing up there at 63.”
Much of the inspiration for “My Bluegrass Heart” came from a desire to continue a musical legacy dating back to the late Tony Rice’s “Manzanita” album and Fleck’s own “Drive” and “The Bluegrass Sessions,” all of which draw heavily on Variations of are based on members of the house band, which he still counts among his musical heroes to this day. The album gave them a chance to do their first legitimate tour together, which is one leg of the twin ensemble that have been touring behind the album for the past year.
“The closest we got was the 1999 tour for ‘Bluegrass Sessions,'” Fleck says of the chance to tour with his peer group of incomparable pickers. “That was the Telluride House Band, only with Mark Schatz instead of Edgar Meyer. It was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. This is the first time these people have dated since and I think everyone had a great time.”
The other core touring ensemble, which debuted at RockyGrass and will be featured in Fleck’s Thursday night set at Telluride, includes Schatz, Sutton, Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland and Justin Moses. Along with album contributors such as Chris Thile, Billy Contreras, Andy Leftwich, Domenic Leslie and Paul Kowert, they represent the next generation of bluegrass-based innovators running squadrons with Fleck and the old guard, and he need look no further than stage left and right if you’re looking for the pickers wearing the progressive bluegrass mantle.
“The cats that play with me or that record on the album are a bunch of them,” Fleck confirms. “Boy, there are some great players these days.”
The album is emblematic of Telluride’s evolving spirit, an ongoing blend of mastery and precision filtered through a spirit of improvisation and pushing musical boundaries.
“During rehearsals I was excited to see what great ideas the band would come up with,” says Fleck of the creative process of the 19 songs that would appear on the double CD album. “At the time of recording, I was able to incorporate their ideas into the final arrangements. For me, the more input everyone has, the more they own the music when they play it live, and everything is much richer. However, there are times and periods where what I wrote was very explicit. It had to be those notes. So it’s a combination of heavily structured and heavily improvised sections, where everyone brings their ideas and I’m very controlling.”
As the project took shape, Fleck was increasingly able to write songs for the particular strengths of the musicians he knew would participate in the project.
“Some of the newer tracks were written when I knew who was going to be in the session,” Fleck explains. “I’d say, ‘Hm, I’ve got Thile and (Billy) Strings, this melody can be more complex.'”
The tandem tours culminated when both groups came together, augmented by others from the album, for a blizzard-delayed show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, followed by a bookend performance at Carnegie Hall the following night.
“It was more than two ensembles for me, because we had Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, and everyone played with everyone at some point,” says Fleck. “It was an outstanding show. I know because I was tasked with mixing it afterwards for a TV special that we’re going to release. Everyone did their best, maybe because we didn’t know until the last minute if the show was actually going to happen. Between COVID and a raging snowstorm, we’ve had our challenges. But I can confidently say that it was an incredible musical success.”
With all the musical tracks he’s trodden, it’s saying a lot that he ranks these two shows at the top of his musical highlight reel.
“The greatest possible experience, with all my friends and colleagues pulling together to make my music,” says Fleck. “I’m very lucky. I won the lottery.”
Best of all, he shared his winning ticket, giving several generations of music masters a rare opportunity to delve deep into an extended and enduring collaboration.
“I don’t remember anything like that,” Fleck says, searching for a point of reference from his own days as an aspiring bluegrass player. “The closest thing would have been ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two’, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin etc. But that was pretty straight forward and very vocal.”
Circle 2 had a two-year run on the Telluride stage, hosted by the Dirt Band, beginning in 1989, the final year for New Grass Revival. Appearing on this album marked another breakthrough for the band, although they were in the process of breaking up – their final show is coming later this year on a New Year’s Eve bill with Bonnie Raitt and the Grateful Dead.
“It was bittersweet that we could never get such a big gig unless the band was about to break up,” Bela laments the New Grass Revival finale with The Dead. “We should have had more space in this community, but we were just a little early. It’s like we finally got some respect, but then we were done.”
This year’s festival offers an unusual reunion as Phil Lesh returns to Telluride for the festival’s conclusion, having first appeared in 1987 during a two-day series of Grateful Dead shows at Town Park.
“I don’t know Phil personally,” Fleck says of the unbroken cycle that unfolds in Telluride. “I had a warm friendship with Jerry Garcia, who opened New Grass Revival and the Flecktones to the dead on various New Year’s Eves at the Oakland Coliseum. He’d also opened the Flecktones for the Jerry Band at the Greek, and there was a David Grisman and Jerry set at Squaw Valley that I got to play on. The Flecktones also opened for Bob Weir once and that was fun to be a part of.”
That spirit will reign over the festival this weekend as Fleck heats up with “My Bluegrass Heart” on Thursday and unleashes one of the festival’s closing sets with the house band on Sunday, with plenty of drop-ins between the two. Fleck summed it up well in his acceptance speech at the 2020 International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame induction for New Grass Revival.
“New Grass Revival really knew how to have fun,” he said. “We had a great time together. But when we got on stage, we pulverized the poor thing.”
Fair warning to the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage as Fleck hits the boards with his bluegrass banjo: prepare to be pulverized.