In early 2005 Béla Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to meet, jam, and record with an impressive array of musicians, bringing along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, and encountered a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia.
In an interview, Fleck explained that his aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared, I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting.”
This according to “Béla Fleck’s Africa Project” by Banning Eyre (Guitar player August 2009).
Today is Fleck’s 60th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from his award-winning film Throw down your heart.
Steve Martin’s love of the banjo dawned when he first heard Earl Scruggs on a record in 1962, when he was was 17 years old and living in the no-bluegrass-zone of Orange County, California.
Though the actor and comedian was drawn to the instrument’s high lonesome sound, it served as a prop in his early comedy routines. His influences included John McEuen (later a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Doug Dillard of the Dillards, and David Lindley (banjo player for the Mad Mountain Ramblers, an acoustic ensemble that Martin heard during a stint at Disneyland).
This according to “Banjo: Obsession is a great substitute for talent” by Mr. Martin, an article included in The Oxford American book of great music writing (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 2008, pp. 402–406).
Today is Martin’s 70th birthday! Above, with some friends in 1977; below, live in 2014.
Although the genre was yet to be named, the addition of Earl Scruggs (1924–2012) to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys provided the crowning moment in the definition of bluegrass.
Scruggs astounded everyone. His extraordinary banjo style allowed him to roll out a rapid barrage of notes that nevertheless sounded out the melody as clearly as the fiddle.
What is now known as “Scruggs-style” banjo playing became the final critical component of Bill Monroe’s undeniably distinctive sound that would eventually be called bluegrass.
This according to Homegrown music: Discovering bluegrass by Stephanie P. Ledgin (Westport: Praeger, 2004).
Today is Scrugg’s 90th birthday! Above, Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945; below, Scruggs and friends on David Letterman’s show in 2001.