If you’re in an airport and see a fellow traveler playing banjo, it might be Bela Fleck—one of the world’s greatest banjo players —killing time between gigs.
“Sometimes it’s unexpected free time,” Fleck said. “Then I find myself writing tunes or continuing work on compositions that I’ve been thinking about that you have to have your instrument in your hand to compose. Plus I just love playing the instrument. I get a buzz off of the way it sounds when I play it. And I think that’s part of the key to why I still continue to find new things to do.”
Finding new things to do is part of what distinguishes Fleck—who appears in San Luis Obispo with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain on May 24 — from all other banjo players. This is the guy, after all, who has been nominated for Grammys in more categories than anyone else. (Winner of 11 Grammys, he’s been nominated in nine categories.)
While he has performed rock with Dave Matthews, jazz with Chick Corea and country with Asleep at the Wheel, it all started for Fleck — as it has with so many banjo players — with the “Beverly Hillbillies.” Once he heard “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” famously performed by bluegrass greats Flatt and Scruggs, the guitarist from New York became fascinated with the banjo.
Yet, as the years passed, Fleck found himself defending the instrument, trying to combat stereotypes that have formed in part due to songs such as “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
The theme song, like the banjo scene in the movie ‘Deliverance’ and the copious use of banjo on the TV show “Hee Haw,” helped associate the instrument with backward Southerners.
“Although they turned on a phenomenal number of people — including me — to the banjo, it also made the stereotype that wasn’t completely true,” he said. “I always wanted to make sure that I wasn’t putting down anything about Southern white country music and bluegrass because I love it, and I’m really proud to be a part of that world. It’s a very magical community. But it’s just a piece of the story of the banjo.”
Early in his career, Fleck set out to prove that banjo wasn’t just for bluegrass, so he began exploring other genres.
He delved into rock with his progressive bluegrass band, New Grass Revival. And his recording debut with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in 1990 marked a move toward jazz. A few years later, the Flecktones would get much exposure from touring with the Dave Matthews Band.
“That really did a lot for us,” said Fleck, who performed with the DMB on stage and appeared on three tracks from his No. 1 album “Before These Crowded Streets.”
He also performed with Phish, Bruce Hornsby and Steve Martin. Martin, more known for his comedy and acting, has played the banjo since he was 17.
“He’s not a technically complex player,” Fleck said, “but he’s always looking for something that feels and sounds just right. He would have to admit that he’s damn good at what he does, which is writing these beautiful little tunes and playing a very straightforward, earthy style of banjo, which is all his own.”
In his quest to expand his versatility, Fleck explored the banjo’s African roots in 2005 —an early version of the banjo is attributed to American slaves who adapted it from African instruments. During a six-week trip to Africa, he sought out collaborations that are included in his documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart,” and an album of the same name.
His foray into African music wasn’t just a passing fancy, though.
“The fact that I don’t always use what I learned on African music is sort of the cool part,” he said. “So if I’m playing a jazz tune, and I feel some African rhythm sneak into my playing, I can encourage it.”
His recent projects have included collaborations with Meyer and Hussain, who recently recorded the album, “The Melody of Rhythm—Triple Concerto &Music for Trio,” exposing the banjo to more world music.
Fleck and Meyer, who plays bass, have been collaborating since the early 1980s. More recently, the duo added tabla player Hussain, an Indian actor and musician.
“I feel like we’re breaking ground every time we sit down to play,” Fleck said. “We’re doing something we’ve never done before and finding this interesting relationship between the tabla and what it does and what the banjo can do. And the way it works with this group setting with Edgar is very exciting.”
Fleck’s gig in San Luis Obispo will be the first in a tour that takes the trio throughout the U.S., Spain, France, and Romania. In other words, expect more banjo playing in the airports.
“I don’t do it to show off or get any attention,” Fleck said.
While he usually takes his banjo to an area with few travelers, he will inevitably attract a crowd. After all, it’s Bela Fleck — whether they know it or not — and a world-class banjo player doesn’t go unnoticed in a public place.
“People will sometimes come up and ask me if I’ve ever heard of Bela Fleck,” he said.