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Bela Fleck takes old approach on new album

This time banjo player and band are strictly instrumental with no guests
/ Source: The Associated Press

It would be a mistake to peg banjo master Bela Fleck as a bluegrass musician — or a jazz musician, rock musician, blues musician or classical musician, for that matter.

Since their 1990 debut, Fleck and his group, the Flecktones, have fused all those musical styles and more on their mostly instrumental records.

Their new album, "The Hidden Land," finds the quartet going it alone after a couple of guest-heavy albums, featuring Dave Matthews, Shawn Colvin, Jon Anderson, Branford Marsalis and Nickel Creek.

Fleck describes the record as a return to the group's essence; fans can judge for themselves during a summer tour. Fleck spoke with The Associated Press recently at a Nashville coffee shop.

Question: "The Hidden Land" breaks with your recent albums in that there are no guests.

Fleck: It is a return to our original concept in making records. The new rule was that we would do anything we wanted as long as it came from us. We would do only what we can do live.

Question: How did older fans react to hearing lyrics with your songs?

Fleck: People were a little upset. I could imagine the band with vocals if it was the right vocalist. But then you open yourself up to the whole world of lyrics, and writing lyrics is another art. It's just not really what I do. When people listen to Flecktones music they can make any interpretation they want to. There are no words to tell them what the song is supposed to be.

Question: When did you begin playing the banjo and what inspired you?

Fleck: I started playing when I was 15. I grew up in New York City so it was a bit odd to my friends. But the reason I started playing banjo was that I fell in love with it after hearing it on the "Beverly Hillbillies" television show. Then when the movie "Deliverance" came out it became a big hit and everybody in the United States was aware of the banjo. That's when my grandfather got me a banjo.

Question: Did you start out playing bluegrass?

Fleck: I started with a lot of bluegrass and folk music because that's where the banjo was at. If you wanted to learn the banjo you were directed to people who played bluegrass. So I came into it from the bluegrass side.

Question: After moving to Boston to join the Tasty Licks you relocated to Lexington, Ky. Was that part of your education as a musician?

Fleck: I felt like I really needed to get the Southern side of the banjo. I needed to understand not just the Northern approach but understand why Earl Scruggs was so important and JD Crowe and Ralph Stanley and all this stuff.

Question: At the same time you were incorporating jazz and classical into your music?

Fleck: I was kind of a hotshot coming into Lexington. I was playing all kinds of modern stuff. I would go play with jazz groups and play with rock bands. I'd do everything I could. But I was also into Crowe and studying a lot of Earl Scruggs tapes.

When you're into jazz and into more technical virtuosic stuff when you're young, you tend to pooh-pooh the older guys and say they're over the hill and they're not really doing anything. As I listened more and more to what Earl and Crowe were doing I started to see it very differently. There was something hip about what they were doing, something very powerful.

Question: Were you accepted by the more traditional players in the South?

Fleck: They liked the idea that I was a good player and everything but they thought I had a lot to learn. They didn't think I had a good sound, they thought I was tasteless. But they liked my enthusiasm and my youthful thinking and my technical ability. They respected enough about me that we became really good friends.

Question: You came to Nashville to join New Grass Revival and stayed in that group about nine years before forming the Flecktones. What did you learn from that experience?

Fleck: They were a great band, very progressive. It was a quantum leap for me, like going to the big leagues from the medium leagues. New Grass Revival encouraged long soloing and different time signatures. So I started writing things with compound time signatures and trying to get them to play it.

Question: Why did you decide to leave?

Fleck: What was happening through the `80s is my music was getting more complex and I was trying to drag all these great bluegrass musicians into it with me. At a certain point I was feeling like I was putting everybody out by making them play this stuff, and I felt like I needed to find some guys who would just eat this stuff up.

Question: Were you surprised by the Flecktones' immediate success?

Fleck: You'd think music that is very uncommercial and odd and artsy would be something you play in small places and build up over years and years. But we were embraced right away. Warner Brothers signed us, we got a video in heavy rotation. There was a window at VH1 that was open for a very short time when they broke Tracy Chapman and broke us. All of a sudden we were on Johnny Carson three or four times, we were on Arsenio Hall. We played Carnegie Hall our first year.

Question: A few critics would say that groups like the Flecktones hurt bluegrass by diluting it. Your response?

Fleck: I think anybody who brings more attention to the music, even if they're playing a hybrid, does something good for it. When I'm playing for a college crowd of young kids and I play some bluegrass banjo in the middle of the show the kids go berserk. And after the show when I talk to people they say, `How could I find out more about that?' `Who should I listen to?' `What's a great bluegrass record I can get?' They're very interested in it.