David Royko Psy.D

Bela Fleck


Page 4, Sunday, July 4, 1999

By David Royko

How does a vagabond go home?

Because Bela Fleck plays the five-string banjo, bluegrass purists will
swear that his only true home can be with them in their little cabin
homes on the hill. And if they think that Fleck's stunning new
bluegrass-based CD bolsters their argument, Fleck doesn't necessarily

"It probably feels like I'm coming home," he says.

But for Fleck, whose energies in the last decade have been dedicated
to the jazz/fusion Flecktones, a group whose music is as much like
bluegrass as a Mack truck is like a bicycle, his musical home seems to
be wherever he happens to be arriving at the moment.

"The funny thing is, after playing bluegrass, when I got back to the
Flecktones, that felt like coming home too," says Fleck, 40. "I feel
very at home with (classical bassist) Edgar Meyer, or with Dave
Matthews, or Bruce Hornsby, or with Chick Corea. So I just might be a

"But there is something about playing with the bluegrass guys. Those
are the guys I've known and played with the longest."

In some cases, that means for 20 years. Fleck's solo career began with
his 1979 album "Crossing the Tracks," which featured a version of
Corea's "Spain" with Jerry Douglas on dobro. For most of the 1980s,
Fleck was a member of the now-legendary New Grass Revival, led by
mandolinist/fiddler Sam Bush. That group was known for breaking, in
the most beautiful and exciting ways, every bluegrass rule while still
being able to deliver a ripping version of Bill Monroe's "Roanoke"
when the mood struck.

The name of Fleck's new album, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume
2: The Bluegrass Sessions" (Warner Brothers), refers to his eclectic,
non-bluegrass CD from 1994, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet." But in
spirit, the new album could be seen more as a follow-up to his 1988
classic "Drive," a collection of Fleck compositions in bluegrass

"The Bluegrass Sessions" features the same all-star sextet of
progressive bluegrass pickers that appeared on "Drive": mandolinist
Bush, guitarist Tony Rice, dobroist Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan,
bassist Mark Schatz and Fleck. The program, with a few exceptions, is
made up of Fleck originals, and the result is an instrumental album
that stands as one of the finest ever examples of instrumental
bluegrass-based music.

The compositions are harmonically rich and complex, yet tuneful and
emotionally direct, and the arrangements build organically on the
thematic material, from the dense and swirling introduction of "Valley
of the Rogue" and the haunting Monroe-style "Dark Circles" to the
exoticism of "Katmandu." When soloing is called for -- whether slow
and thoughtful, jaunty, or furiously fast -- there are no better
musicians alive, in any idiom, than those gracing Fleck's disc.

With this major-label album, Fleck has the power to bring listeners to
a form of music they otherwise might never try. Whereas Ricky Skaggs
pulled mainstream country fans to his new bluegrass reincarnation and
the late Jerry Garcia brought Deadhead rockers to bluegrass via his
band Old & In The Way, the pop/jazz/fusion/jam-band crowd that follows
the Flecktones represents another potential audience.

But neither Skaggs nor Garcia, nor even bluegrass poster girl Alison
Krauss, has released bluegrass on a label like Warner Brothers. Not
since Columbia Records' work with Flatt and Scruggs in the '60s, or
Mercury Records' "Dueling Banjos" hit from the early '70s, has
bluegrass received big-label treatment. The International Bluegrass
Music Association cites recent statistics gathered by the National
Endowment for the Arts that indicate interest in bluegrass is surging,
so Fleck's -- and Warner's -- timing might be perfect.

"The label went from being a little bit iffy about my doing a
bluegrass record to being completely supportive," says Fleck. "In
fact, the president of the Nashville division called me up and
congratulated me on the record. He even called some of the other
musicians because he loves it so much."

Since the 1960s, bluegrass has chafed under negative stereotypical
associations from the likes of TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the
movie "Deliverance." With Fleck as a mass-market ambassador, the music
might begin to gain the wider respect granted jazz and blues that,
together with bluegrass, represent the three forms of great original
American music.