by Jason Walsh
Special to Louisville.com
Heavily influenced by the bluegrass music of Flatt & Scruggs, he picked up the banjo at age 15 and never put it down. Fleck made a name for himself when he joined the progressive bluegrass band, New Grass Revival, and later formed the Flecktones, with members he felt were just as "talented and adventurous" as himself. Béla Fleck has won nine Grammy awards and has received 25 nominations in more diverse categories than any other musician in history.
Aside from his numerous music projects, Fleck and director Sascha Paladino, his younger brother, are currently premiering the documentary "Throw Down Your Heart" at film festivals across the country. The film follows Fleck on a musical odyssey exploring the African roots of the banjo while recording an album.
Jason Walsh had a chance to ask Fleck a few questions about the current end-of-the-year tour, his side projects, and the new film which will premiere in 2009.
JW: So, it's been a busy year for you and it looks like next year will be no different. prior to you guys coming to Louisville, I see you have five dates in Hawaii with the Flecktones. Kind of a nice way to start off an end of the year tour when the weather is getting colder? It must be nice to be playing in the islands before embarking on some colder winter dates?
BELA: It is very nice to be here on the big island. We were last here about 5 years ago, and have been looking for the right time to come back. After Argentina, Mexico, Spokane, Bend and San Fran, this was the time.
JW: Being a former, and current resident of Kentucky, is it special coming back to play for the folks there? I'm thinking the folks in Louisville are all pretty excited to have you guys return and the venue is a pretty nice place as well.
BELA: I always love playing Lousiville. This town was like home for New Grass Revival and later was the birth place of the Flecktones, at the Lonesome Pines Specials.
JW: Tell me about the "Jingle All the Way" holiday cd. What was the inspiration for doing that and how did it come about?
BELA: This is a project we have been intending to do for 15 or so years. We started doing holiday tunes in our 2nd year, and people always loved 'em. We always thought we could do a very different holiday recording. Finally the time was right and here we are.
JW: This year you were also involved in the Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet project. How did that come about and what drew you to that?
BELA: I loved doing that project. I knew about Abby and her music. When she invited us all to China for a tour, Sparrow came together. Because we all had time to do it, we decided to make it a priority for 2008. The unusual instrumentation drew me to it, as well as the chance to collaborate with a great vocalist, something I rarely get to do these days.
JW: How was touring with that group?
BELA: It was great. We covered a lot of ground, 60 plus shows, sold a lot of CDs and made a lot of friends. I will miss it, when it goes dormant.
JW: It looks like you will be switching from concert halls to film festivals in the new year. Talk about the Throw Down Your Heart documentary and what was it like working with your brother Sascha?
BELA: Actually I've been spending a lot of time at the festivals this year. We have won 5 awards so far, and people seem to love the film. I am proud to have done this with my little brother. He did a great job directing. It's the most ambitious project I have ever done, actually. Next year the album and tour are going to happen, and then the film.
JW: And there will be a soundtrack to go with the film? When will that be released?
BELA: It is looking like it's coming in late February and the tour will start in March.
JW: What drew you to the banjo? I read you first started with guitar and then played several other classical instruments as well. Why was the banjo special?
BELA: I loved the banjo, but didn't get one til I was 15. At that point I was a 'folk' guitarist. I never really played any classical instruments, although I made a poorly conceived attempt at French Horn. That was a disaster, and I ended up being moved to the chorus. The banjo jumped out at me, and once I began to play it, there was no other possibility.
JW: Did you ever think when you first started working with the Flecktones that you would still be playing with these guys so many years later? And does it get better over time?
BELA: We have our cycles, but it always hits a certain level and when we all have a great night, it's pretty amazing. Honestly, it is hard to assess, because I rarely listen back and compare but we do have a very special thing that happens when we play.
JW: Lastly, what would you say to the folks in Louisville to get them to come out to the show? What do they have to look forward to?
BELA: The new music is a blast. Who would have thought holiday music would be so much fun?
Twelve days of Christmas seems to be the hit, so far. We play it in 12 keys and 12 time signatures.
People are just loving the stuff. I think it's because finally we are playing some music that they know. Also, we have some incredible guests sitting in in Louisville, all the way from Tuva.It's a quartet called Alash and they rock. They appear on the Holiday CD, and if you have never heard Tuvan Throatsingers, well you have a treat coming!