Bela Fleck Guest DJs on the Morning Mix

Modern master of the banjo, Bèla Fleck, who has played in New Grass Revival and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones joined Cindy Howes on the Morning Mix for a guest DJ set! While Fleck was on tour with the NY Banjo Summit, featuring the finest banjo players in New York State (Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Noam Pickelny, Richie Stearns, Tony Trischka, and others), he shared some of his favorite banjo songs.

Fleck’s first song is by Earl Scruggs, the father of modern banjo playing. Bèla first heard Scruggs when he was 4 or 5 and Scruggs was featured in the theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies". Fleck says that 3 finger Banjo players on the tour idolize him, and “When you listen to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" you hear this incredible intensity, this modern kind of computer perfection, and yet you hear this funky quality, this sort of high tech primitive quality.”

The next big piece of inspiration came when Bela Fleck heard Eric Weissberg perform the "Deliverance" theme. “It became a number one pop hit internationally, and opened the doors to the banjos next big days.” Cindy posed that this might be the most influential banjo song of all time. “I do think so. It was something that really shook people up. It could be a pop hit for people that had no interest in banjo whatsoever… It had a lot of impact,” Fleck agreed. 

The last song is one by Abigail Washburn. “When I first heard her music, she gave me her cd, and I started driving my car home from wherever it was. And I started driving my car faster and faster the more I listened to it. Next thing you know I got pulled over and was walking the line.” Abby plays banjo in the clawhammer  style, and Bela Fleck says she has a very elegant way of writing songs and a very beautiful voice.

The idea for Bela Fleck’s New York Banjo Summit came from Peter Lester, who runs The Egg in Albany. He realized there were so many influential banjo players in New York that had contributed to the modernization of the banjo. This is the third tour the group has done.

“Where I start with the history of the banjo is thinking about it comes from Africa, and it came over to the America’s with the slaves, in the slave trade. Now, Pete Seeger tells me that before Africa, it started in the Tigris and Euphrates river and worked down through the trade routes into Africa, which I always though was ironic, that America’s instrument came from Iraq.” Fleck said. “The banjo has just continually changed and evolved through the years, even physically, from being a skinhead on a gourd with a stick sticking out of it and a couple gut strings, to these very high tech, beautiful mother of pearl instruments we have now.”

“Now I want to know, how many banjos do you own?” Cindy asked. “If I knew that, I would tell you. But I can tell you that I have a couple double sized closets full of them. I don’t go around counting them very often, because I might be embarrassed.” He later admitted that the count might be around 40. The banjo that Bela Fleck played with for this tour is from 1937, it’s a Gibson Style 75, called that because it cost $75. Now it would be worth $100,000. “Has anyone ever done an MTV cribs with you, so people can see your closets of banjos?” Cindy joked.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have a baby named Juno Jasper Washburn Fleck and he likes the banjo too! “Last night he was sick and he was crying, and I got out this little bitty ukulele banjo and he just stops. Stops crying, starts listening, and he just lights up. We had to feed him this little medicine, and every time he finished the medicine, he’d start crying, and I’d start playing and he’d stop…I don’t know if that’s normal, but of course we think we have the most amazing baby in the world.” Fleck makes up songs for his baby, nicknamed Smoogie, off the top of the head. “It cheers him up!” Fleck said.

Bèla Fleck's Guest DJ Set:

Earl Scruggs - Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Eric Weissberg - Dualing Banjos

Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge