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Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn bring family affair to Big Grass

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By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – This year marks the 10th anniversary of the highly anticipated Big Sky Big Grass music festival, but it’s the first year legendary banjo master Béla Fleck augments the increasingly impressive lineup of musicians. The 2016 Big Grass lineup is sure to cause some serious snowmelt on the mountain at Big Sky Resort during the first weekend of February.

Fleck is renowned for elevating the banjo from its hillbilly roots and expertly showcasing the instrument’s versatility and respectability across musical genres ranging from classical to funk, jazz, world, and even ‘80s pop. Fleck will appear on stage with a relatively new touring partner, wife and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn.

Washburn plays in the rhythmic old time strumming style called clawhammer. Combined with Fleck’s plucky three-finger picking and overlaid with Washburn’s soulful, torchy vocals, they create a moving tapestry of sound that rushes and ripples, bounces and bobbles, as if flowing over a stony river bottom.

Washburn’s name might not be known in as many households as her husband’s, but her musical prowess stands on its own merits – perhaps most notably as a longtime member of the all “g’earl” touring band Uncle Earl. Her insistence on building a career independent of Fleck’s is one of the reasons the couple waited so many years to make their musical partnership official.

It wasn’t until the birth of their son Juno in 2013 that Fleck and Washburn decided the best way to preserve their family unit was to play together more, so they hit the road as a husband and wife team, baby in tow.

“The duo has turned out to be good for our marriage, because we look for consensus and find ways to accommodate each other’s point of view in the music and our relationship,” Fleck wrote in a January email. “I think Abby brings out a musical and heartfelt side of me, while I ask things of her technically that she hasn’t done before on a regular basis.”

Fleck says he challenges Washburn to be his “Yang,” and she challenges him to be the “Yin” of the duo.

At Big Sky Big Grass, expect to hear tracks off the duo’s eponymous 2014 debut album, a characteristically eclectic collection of Appalachian murder ballads, gospel, chamber and blues.

Fleck and Washburn are looking forward to plucking their stuff during their Saturday evening performance at Big Grass.

“I have always loved coming to the mountains in winter to play music,” Fleck said. “My road manager hates me for it. ‘Florida in the winter; mountains in the summer’ is his mantra to me. But the way it feels to bring the music to the people in those places in the winter is very special.”

And Fleck says they’re excited to be performing along with the other musicians in the lineup, some of whom are “very dear lifelong friends.”

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn perform at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 7 in Big Sky Resort’s Missouri Ballroom. Big Sky Big Grass began Feb. 4 and concludes on Sunday, Feb. 7 with concerts at numerous Big Sky Resort venues.

Visit for a complete schedule of performances and ticket information.

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