Ambassador of the Banjo: An Interview with Béla Fleck
40 years of festivarian spirit permeates our Telluride box canyon as thousands of people begin the pilgrimage to this year’s Bluegrass Festival. A celebratory weekend of Americana roots music, beer, and (fingers crossed!) lots of sunshine… Doesn’t get much better.
The banjo is at the heart of traditional southern-style bluegrass, a style made famous by Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and their contemporaries. Today's undisputed master of the banjo, Béla Fleck, first discovered the banjo through the theme song (written and performed by Earl Scruggs) of the the sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies. A growing affection and proficiency for the instrument organically led to Fleck's experimenting with style and genre -- a natural progression to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Since its beginning, the festival has been an experiment in pushing the known boundaries of the traditional bluegrass genre. And forty years worth of collaboration between the most celebrated and talented contemporary musicians has produced some incredible music. Béla Fleck, one of the ‘usual suspects’ of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, has been coming to Telluride since 1982. The scenery, the musicianship, and the general atmosphere of Bluegrass continues to inspire him as he arrives to play his 31st festival this coming weekend.
Don't miss Béla's solo performance on Sunday at 11:15 am and his headlining performance with the Telluride House Band on Sunday evening!
I recently had the opportunity, and truly the honor, to speak with Béla about his upcoming performances and his connection to Telluride and the Bluegrass Festival. The following is an excerpt from my interview with the legendary, Béla Fleck. The full text of the interview will be published in the Festivarian Magazine.
Sophie: 31 years at Bluegrass: What do Telluride and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival mean to you?
Béla: It means a lot of things. There are no other festivals that I’ve been to for the last 31 years. None. So there’s not only a commitment of me to the festival, but there’s a commitment of the festival to me and an endorsement, a welcoming, they say I’m part of the family. It makes me feel really good. And a big part of it is because of the community of people that has been part of the family for so long. [Also, it is] the general idealistic point of view that the festival has managed to maintain over all this time. It’s a great association -- people always talk about Telluride Bluegrass Festival, folks that don’t know anything about Bluegrass know about Telluride. And you could even say for a bluegrass festival, Telluride is an ambassador of bluegrass. You [meet] a lot of people who don’t think that they would love a bluegrass festival, [may] have heard about Telluride and have gone to [the festival] several times, and have fallen in love. Now they might go to a more traditional festival and really enjoy it.
Sophie: How has the festival changed since your first festival in 1982?
Béla: The spirit of [the festival] hasn’t changed to me at all. The stage is nicer than it used to be! A lot of the same people who were there in the beginning are still there, musicians and staff. And the management has changed, but [the changeover] was as seamless as it could be considering how much of the original festival’s charter came from a particular person. A great guy. But the festival weathered [the change], because the “new” management followed the letter of the idealistic law that had been laid down as to what the festival was supposed to be. And so us lucky ones continue to come every year and continue to be proud to be associated with [Bluegrass]. And other people who don’t get to come every year are proud to be there any year and excited to interact with all the musicians. And it’s always great. Every year when I get done playing, I go out and watch, and I’m knocked out by one great performance after another. People bring their A-game because of what the festival means.
Sophie: You’ve played with the likes of Sam Bush, Jerry McCoury, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, and Edgar Meyer in the Telluride House Band, New Grass Revival, and many other musical collaborations over the years – What’s new for this year?
Béla: I have [played with many of the same people], but really I’ve tried to do something new every year that I’ve been [in Telluride] for the last 8 or 10 years. I always try to bring something different. And this year I had something really special I was going to bring, an incredible African artist [from Mali] named Oumou Sangare. I was going to play with her band but because my wife, Abigail, was pregnant and was supposed to have the baby on June 8, I canceled that whole tour with Oumou. The baby [ended up coming] early so I decided to just come to the festival [myself]. So now I’m going to come and play a solo set on Sunday and play with the House Band. I’m not bringing a totally new thing like I normally do.
Sophie: What are some of your hopes and expectations for this year’s 40th Anniversary Bluegrass Festival?
Béla: I don’t really have any hopes. I can be assured when I get there I’m going to be surrounded by a lot of friends, great music is going to be happening around the clock, and that it’s going to be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been once again. In terms of particular hopes, I’m pretty confident that I know what I’m walking into. I hope I play well. I’ve taken 3 months off so it’s not like walking in out of a pile of other gigs, and I want to bring my best. The place just brings it out of me too so I’m not really worried. I hope I don’t suck.
Sophie: I can almost guarantee you won’t suck. I am so looking forward to hearing you play this weekend, see you in Telluride!