Béla Fleck's new album My Bluegrass Heart was laid down in live-to-tape recording sessions before the 2020 pandemic struck which gives the album a roomy, vintage feel | Photo by William Matthews

American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck just took home his 16th Grammy and this time around it was for best bluegrass album for the 2021 record My Bluegrass Heart. 

On May 26, his national My Bluegrass Heart tour will make a stop at Charleston Music Hall downtown. 

“The weird thing about me is I come from New York City and I fell in love with bluegrass even though there’s no cultural background in my family or in my world or where I came from,” Fleck told City Paper

He remembers hearing the banjo for the first time at about 5 years old when he listened to Earl Scruggs play on The Beverly Hillbillies sitcom.

“I think I was an unactivated banjo player waiting for the call,” Fleck said. “When I heard the sound of this banjo I was like, ‘Oh my God, whatever that is I love it.’ It took time to actually get a banjo, but from then on I was banjo-aware. I was in love with that sound, and I never actually thought I could do it because it sounded impossible that anybody could play that instrument.”

Fleck finally laid hands on his first banjo at age 15. And while he was mildly interested in music as a kid, when he picked up that banjo he morphed into a total music fanatic. He simply couldn’t put the instrument down.

“I was completely activated at that point,” he joked. 

Fleck traversed the worlds of country, pop, jazz, classical and everything in between as he expanded the possibilities of what the banjo could actually do. But bluegrass was something he would always come back to through the decades. 

To that end, My Bluegrass Heart is the third installment in a bluegrass trilogy that exists within Fleck’s vast discography. The first was 1988’s Drive and the second was 1999’s The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol.2.

“Looking back [Drive] was one of the best projects I’ve been a part of and it was just a bit of luck,” Fleck said. “There’s fairy dust sprinkled into that record.”

Drive and Bluegrass Sessions are sonic chronicles of the boundary bending material coming from musicians at the center of the progressive bluegrass scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s including Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas as well as elders of the craft, John Hartford and Vassar Clements. 

“These people were on the edge of bluegrass but were touching base with the origins yet stretching it in a certain, very particular way,” Fleck said. “In playing with those people and finding those partners in crime, it was possible to do progressive music that was very rooted, very solid. The rhythm was going to be there, the feel was going to be there. The music was going to dance. It was going to be melodic, but yet we were exploring new directions.”  

And some 20 years later, that same spirit infuses My Bluegrass Heart. Fleck’s newest album features a roster of old friends from the Drive/Bluegrass Sessions years plus players from a new generation of progressive music such as Chris Thile, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and Sierra Hull.

“I started out thinking I had these tunes that really fit in that mold of Drive and Bluegrass Sessions,” Fleck said, “but as I went along I thought, why be restricted? Why not take advantage of all these musical experiences I’ve had outside of bluegrass?” 

The 19 instrumental tracks that comprise My Bluegrass Heart are truly variations on a theme, stitching together sections of straightforward bluegrass with exploratory compositions and diverse harmonic textures. 

“It can be very intimidating to start from scratch. You have to get to a point where you’re not comparing yourself to everyone else — you’re trying to express yourself. Once you see that, nobody can beat you because there’s only one you. You can only lose by getting intimidated by the very process. You just have to write all the time so you’re good at it, so there’s a flow.

“I’ve sort of become a curator of a certain musical point of view.”

Joining Fleck at the Music Hall on May 26 are fiddle player Michael Cleveland, mandolinist Jacob Jolliff, guitarist Cody Kilby and multi-instrumentalists Justin Moses and Mark Schatz. 

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