Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck bring the kind of missionary zeal and unshakeable confidence to double-banjo albums that Sam I Am brought to his evangelizing for green eggs and ham. The duo’s second full-length recording, Echo In The Valley (2017), is instrumentally sparce— two banjos at any one time, two voices, a pair of dancing feet. And yet it’s sonically rich, owing maybe to their refined sense of musicality, their careful pairing of timbres and their playing styles.
Washburn, an excellent clawhammerist, typically frails on a standard five string, both fretted and fretless, and when she’s not frailing she can be heard clogging or plucking bassy figures on a deeply resonant cello banjo that trampolines fat round notes into the mix. Fleck, of course, sits to Earl Scruggs’s immediate right on Mount Banjolympus, and on these 11 songs he applies his fluid three-finger sorcery to a baritone banjo, a cello banjo, as well as his standard 1937 Gibson. It all fits together beautifully. The Tabasco (Tabanjo?!) sauce on the green eggs, if you will, is Washburn’s voice. Her vocals soar, her inflections are distinctive, and Fleck throws in some solid harmonies for depth.
Two banjos at one time for 46 minutes—is it worth listening to? Did I like it in a boat? Did I like it with a goat? Yes, although I will admit that before giving it a spin I was already bi-banjo curious. (My goat’s less biased opinion—four hoofs up!). The production is warm, clear and intimate, there are few obvious studio effects, and the folk vibe pulses with deep, playful energy. The harmonic and lyrical moods tend towards the reflective; the lyrics at times go to the zone where the political, poetic, and personal meet.
By and large, this is hopeful and/or helpful music for troubling times, perhaps the couple’s response to the 2016 election and what it portended. Standout songs for me are the slightly distorted, off-kilter “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” (a piece of musical juju to keep stashed in your auditory cortex to help you through life’s setbacks) “Take Me To Harlan,” with its banjo/foot-percussion accompaniment, and the final cut “Bloomin Rose,” the bittersweetest song of the bunch.
All in all, Echo In the Valley is making me wonder whether… (apologies George Orwell) one banjo good, two banjos better.