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Béla Fleck, long a bluegrass innovator, will go back to his roots at the Sheldon

Banjo innovator Béla Fleck at a May rehearsal. Fleck is touring behind a double-album that explores his bluegrass roots while pointing toward some new musical directions. [11/30/21]
Alan Messer
Béla Fleck at a May rehearsal. Fleck is touring behind a double album that explores his bluegrass roots while pointing toward new musical directions.

Béla Fleck has been an ambassador of the banjo for four decades, fusing bluegrass with other styles of music. His diverse musical tastes are reflected in the range of Grammy Awards he’s won, including best contemporary jazz album, folk album, pop instrumental album, classical crossover album and two for best contemporary world music album.

His newest album is a return to his bluegrass roots. “My Bluegrass Heart” features 20 guest musicians, all stars of the acoustic music world. It’s his third album in a bluegrass trilogy that also includes 1988’s “Drive” and “The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2,” released in 1999.

Fleck plays the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries on Wednesday with a band of musicians who are headliners in their own right: mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro master Jerry Douglas, bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton.

True to form, Fleck’s latest album is rooted in bluegrass but still reflects his compositional ambition and his taste for disregarding the boundaries of tradition.

“My bluegrass album is definitely attempting to not be limited. So you’re going to have some stuff that scratches that old-time funky itch, but you’re also going to have some stuff that goes out to the moon. And I’m glad I got all of that,” Fleck said.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Fleck about his musical adventures melding genres and the impetus for his latest project.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: People know you as someone who has brought the banjo into other musical contexts. At this point in your career, how does bluegrass fit into your musical identity?

Béla Fleck: I think that you take certain things for granted when they’ve been in your life the whole time. For me, occasionally I rediscover bluegrass, and I realize it’s one of the coolest artforms that’s ever occurred among human beings, and I’m super proud to be part of it.

Growing up in New York City and getting into it, a lot of people laughed at me because I liked bluegrass and they thought it was stupid and hillbilly and all this stuff. And I loved it anyway. And I couldn’t explain it. But I also was very intrigued by all kinds of music, and I found myself maybe downplaying bluegrass in a way at certain points in my career — going: ‘I don’t want to just be bluegrass. I want to play all kinds of music. I want to play classical music. I want to play jazz. I want to play rock. I want to be involved with all kinds of musical conversations.’

And so I would downplay the bluegrass part of myself. But every once in a while I would come back to it and realize it was maybe the hippest thing I’ve ever been a part of. And then everything I’ve done outside of it meant that I could bring some different ideas to it.

Goodwin: The last time you released a bluegrass record it was 1999, which was a very different moment in your life and career. What does it mean to you at this point to release an album like this?

Fleck: Well the album is a piece of it, but the connection to the community is even better. Because I’m often seen outside of the bluegrass world, sometimes there’s a sense in the bluegrass world that I don’t care about it or it’s not part of who I am, or I don’t claim it. But I do. I really do. And I have to say, a lot of the great collaborations I’ve done with people outside of bluegrass are not because I could play their music but because I was bringing bluegrass to their music.

So for instance, playing with Chick Corea, he was intrigued by the bluegrass element. I couldn’t keep up with him as a jazz musician, you know what I mean? I may have wished that I could be a Chick Corea-level jazz artist, but the thing that made him interested in me was that I was a bluegrass guy who was interested in jazz. And he was curious what he could learn from the bluegrass side. And it’s been that way with musicians from India, Africa, everywhere. They’re interested in the bluegrass side of it. And I’m interested in their music that’s not bluegrass.

This is a time when I’m celebrating some of my longtime relationships and building some new relationships in that world. It was a community album.

Goodwin: Let’s talk about how you got here, to this project. You’ve said the idea came after your child had a health scare?

Fleck: There was a really scary moment in our family where our little Theodore had a bleeding issue. He has a liver disease that meant that he wasn’t getting any vitamin K, he didn’t have any in his system. So a very mild cut turned into a weeklong hospital stay while we tried to figure out how to get his blood to clot. Very frightening.

And those kinds of things change you, and they make you think about what’s important, and about time flying by. At the time I started planning this project, it was after Theodore was going to be OK. But I was different. I was feeling different about what mattered to me. I was thinking about time flying by and the chance to do certain things not being infinite. A lot of my friends ageing. Just the thin line between life and death sometimes.

Béla Fleck at a May rehearsal. Fleck has spent decades fusing banjo music with other genres. His latest project is a return to bluegrass. [11/30/21]
Alan Messer
Béla Fleck at a May rehearsal. Fleck has spent decades fusing banjo music with other genres. His latest project is a return to bluegrass.

Another piece of it was that people want to touch base and be connected to your family when something bad happens. You want to connect. And in a lot of ways the bluegrass world is my family. And my dearest friends, my oldest friends — Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, guys like that, wanting to reconnect with them and make some music that I knew how to do. It didn’t seem like this was a high jump for me. I didn’t think I had to reinvent the wheel and create something that’s never been done before. Although in some ways I think some of that happened, just in a natural way.

It was a touching base and a settling, and it was a safe thing to do. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I didn’t have to go on the road to make this record. I could do it all in my basement, just a few steps away from my kids and Abby.

Goodwin: How is this record different from other stuff you’ve worked on recently?

Fleck: I like to write stuff that has room for everybody to bring their own ideas. I wrote some stuff for orchestra, and it's not like that at all. You have to write every single note, articulation, every dynamic. You want to make it something they can read down and play with an hour of rehearsal.

This is different. This is more like jazz, where you provide a sketch with some hard licks here and there, maybe some counterpoint, maybe some unison lines, some chord changes — but then you open it up and let people make their own statement about what you’ve created. That’s very common between bluegrass and jazz.

Goodwin: A lot of the big figures we think of in both those genres are composers as well as bandleaders. It’s a balance of bringing sheets into rehearsal, sure, but finding a way for the rest of the band to have their moments.

Fleck: Exactly. But you also have to figure out what makes your recording different from other people’s recordings. With this record, with all of these different players, you’re not going to see this combination on a lot of other records, maybe never. But I’m still trying to push things at them that they don’t run across typically.

Everybody sweated a bit to play this music. Nobody was like, this is easy. There were a lot of demands. When you listen to the arrangements, when you play — you can call it the chorus of a song — it's going to be different the next time it comes around. It might have a different amount of bars, or the chords might be different, or the melody may be different, or it may have a counterpoint, or it might be in half-time. Things like that. Doing all these ideas I’ve learned from outside of bluegrass and trying to apply them to a bluegrass band instrumentation.

Instead of trying to play like Earl Scruggs or play like J.D. Crow, I’m trying to play like me here. And “me” is a guy from New York City who loves all kinds of music. So my bluegrass should reflect that, or it’s just not honest.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.