Banjo masters Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn on Trump’s plans for the NEA

Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck at the Grammy Awards in 2016.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn spent Thursday afternoon at Disneyland with their son, Juno, whose 3-year-old charms were enough to convince Goofy to take the kid’s hand for a stroll though the crowded theme park.

But not even VIP treatment at the happiest place on Earth could keep these acclaimed banjo players from feeling “dismay,” as Fleck put it, over news of President Trump’s plans to tighten America’s borders and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

“It all just feels like an effort to make people fearful of the world,” Washburn said after the Disney trip as she and her husband prepared for a concert at the Musco Center for the Arts in Orange.


Added Fleck: “I’m trying hard to understand the point of view here, but it’s hard. Culture brings people together — it tears down walls like no political speech ever could.”

The couple, who married in 2009, speak from experience.

Throughout the 1990s, Fleck — known for his signature blend of jazz and bluegrass — traveled to India, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries at the behest of the State Department’s now-shuttered U.S. Information Agency, which relied on artists to engage in a kind of soft diplomacy. And as a result of her extensive collaborations with musicians in China, Washburn in 2013 was named U.S.-China fellow at Vanderbilt University, near where she and Fleck live in Nashville.

“Béla and I have both met so many wonderful people around the world through music,” Washburn said. “My fear is that closing off boundaries will make us lose perspective on our own culture.”

For their first joint project, a self-titled duo record that came out in 2014 and won a Grammy Award for folk album, the two dug deep into American roots music, pulling from gospel and blues and the murder ballads of old-time Appalachia. The disc also features a gorgeous rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” that grew out of their rediscovery of music for children after Juno was born.

True to Washburn’s point, though, the album complements those close-to-home sounds with elements from elsewhere, as in “New South Africa” and an adaptation of several classical pieces by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, for whom Fleck was named.


The couple will perform material from the record Saturday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. But Fleck said their set will also contain four or five new songs they’ve written for a second duo album they’re close to finishing. And some of those, he added, take up “what’s been going on in the world over the past six months.”

Fleck explained that becoming parents had inspired him and Washburn to be more vocal in their political views.

“I wouldn’t call the new one a protest record, but we’re definitely shaped by events, and we feel it’s important to reflect the times in our music,” he said. “I don’t know that I would’ve felt that same way if it was just me off doing my music on my own outside of a family context. Now I feel a responsibility to have an opinion.”

“And to think about Juno’s future,” Washburn said.

Twitter: @mikaelwood



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