Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn make beautiful banjo music together Oct. 22 at Eisenhower

Husband-and-wife banjo virtuosos Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn blend his bluegrass-to-jazz-to-classical instrumentals with her Chinese and Appalachia-influenced, claw-hammered style plus vocals to result in what NPR describes as the sound of two banjos engrossed in conversation. The duo will create beautiful music together for an Eisenhower Auditorium audience at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22.

Purchase tickets, which are $45 for an adult, $17 for a University Park student and $35 for a person 18 and younger. A grant from the University Park Allocation Committee makes Penn State student prices possible.

Influenced at an early age by Earl Scruggs’ performance of the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Fleck has an uncanny ability to lend his banjo and complex compositions to a host of genres. Winner of 15 Grammy Awards, he has performed and collaborated with various Americana, bluegrass, folk, jazz and jam-band musicians, including his own group the Flecktones, The Bluegrass All-stars, Alison Brown, Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, Tuvan throat-singing group Alash Ensemble, Dave Matthews Band, Chick Corea and Phish.

He also collaborated with Meyer to record “Perpetual Motion,” an album of classical compositions. In 2011, Fleck premiered “The Imposter,” his banjo concerto, in a performance with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

After years of living in China, Washburn abandoned her plan to enter law school in that country to focus on a career as a musician. She started with the all-female string band Uncle Earl. Her participation in a songwriting contest at MerleFest led to a solo career when she caught the ear of a Nettwerk record label representative.

She joined Fleck in Sparrow Quartet and with that group toured Tibet in 2006, a first for an American ensemble. She also performed for various benefit events, including with David Liang in Afterquake and on The Silk Road Tour with The Village. Additionally, she played with Appalachian avant-garde group The Wu-Force, with Chinese zither master Wu Fei. Named a TED fellow in 2012, she presented a talk about how to improve China-United States relations through music.

Fleck and Washburn married in 2009. In 2013, she gave birth to their son, Juno, who the Bluegrass Intelligencer dubbed a “male heir” to the banjo throne. As a way to keep the family close, the pair decided to collaborate and tour together. In 2014, they released a self-titled album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart.

“Béla is really the reason that it’s finished,” Washburn said. “There were a few months when Juno was a newborn that I just really had to have somebody say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re gonna do today.’ As long as I could spend a few hours a day between nursings, we could make some good progress on the record.”

Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring Fleck, takes place in Eisenhower one hour before the concert and is free for ticket holders.

Richard and Sally Kalin sponsor the concert. Radio station The FREQ is the media sponsor.

Watch a video of Fleck and Washburn playing “New South Africa.”

See Washburn perform an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.