Behold the oft-misunderstood banjo. For many, it’s is a one-note pony, the instrument that provided the twang at the start of television’s “Beverly Hillbillies” and was featured in the movie “Deliverance.”
Bela Fleck, arguably the world’s most famous and renowned banjo player, wants to reset the record. Now touring with his wife and fellow banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn, the pair perform Friday night at South Orange Performing Arts Center and April 13 at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium.
“This tour celebrates the banjo and all the things it can do that no other instrument can,” Fleck said. “People usually have low expectations but those can be easily shattered. We’ll going to surprise people with the expression you can et from banjos, soulful and sad, pretty, cracking and jarring down.”
Fleck has showcased the banjo’s diversity for years. He’s won 16 Grammy Awards in categories including country, jazz, world music, folk and classical crossover. Fleck and Washburn won the 2016 Best Folk Album Grammy for their self-titled album that showcased Fleck’s classical style and Washburn’s soulful voice and claw-hammer technique. Paste magazine dubbed the pair “the king and queen of the banjo.”
Fleck’s familiar with being misunderstood. It starts with his first name and its unusual accent mark. (It’s pronounced Bay-la.)
“People either think i’m from the old county, whatever old country they imagine, or they think i’m a girl,” said Fleck who grew up in Manhattan and was inspired to pick up the banjo after hearing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme. “It dragged me out of one culture and into another.”
A banjo player from New York City’s Upper West Side? It makes perfect sense to Fleck. The instrument came to the United States from Africa with enslaved Africans. Society ladies played banjos in their parlors. Minstrels strummed banjos as they moved from town to town. Louis Armstrong had a banjo in his early jazz bands.
“The banjo changes and changes,” Fleck said.
And perhaps no artist has showcased the instrument’s versatility as Fleck has. Last month, he released “Juno Concerto,” written for the banjo and recorded with the Colorado Symphony. The piece is named for his son and the music is infused with his experiences as a father, he said. His experience writing another concerto was the storyline of the 2014 documentary, “Bela Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto.”
Washburn and Fleck are working on an album of new material scheduled for release this fall. And after that, well, Fleck will keep exploring the banjo’s potential.
“I keep looking for the next thing and don’t think too far out,” he said. “I’m just having a great time playing in a room filled with people who like the banjo.”
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
South Orange Performing Arts Center
One SOPAC Way, South Orange
Tickets: $55-70, available online at www.sopacnow.org. April 7.
Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium
Tickets: $15-40, available online at https://tickets.princeton.edu. April 13