Béla Fleck has always been more enigma than musical artist. Nobody was that particularly surprised when Béla jumped the rails of all conventions in bluegrass, and went frolicking through the fields of God knows what early in his career, taking the banjo where no banjo had gone before. Nothing can contain a creative dynamo like that. Just feel lucky he remained in music, and didn’t veer into neuroscience or astrophysics or something. Even if you couldn’t follow Béla into the deep forays toward the final frontier of what is humanly possible in musical composition, you were glad someone was venturing there.
But bluegrass was always the jumping off point, even if much of what Béla did would have been labeled as “Ain’t no part of nothin'” by the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. Yes, just like country, the conflicts over what is and what isn’t bluegrass are constant, and tiresome. It’s just when bluegrass boys and girls go off the script, it’s usually towards something even more cerebral, not something more trite and derivative.
Now Béla Fleck has journeyed back to his original compass point in his latest album, My Bluegrass Heart. No, there’s no reels about how pretty Jenny broke his poor heart or how Uncle Pen could sure cut a rug. This is still Béla bluegrass, entirely instrumental, fearless in scope, and compositionally astounding. Béla Fleck didn’t just rope in names like Billy Strings, Chris Thile, Brian Sutton, Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland, Molly Tuttle, and Edgar Meyer to perform on this project to impress you by the depth of his Rolodex. They just happen to be the only players alive out there that can actualize this kind of crazy stuff.
Old friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and David Grisman also show up to contribute to this massive, 19-song treatise that never delivers a dull moment, even if after a while it may leave you in a daze from the dizzying instrumentation and a lack of lyrical reference points. It’s a lot to digest to say the least, but if you’re looking for some starting points or takeaway songs, possibly start with the opening title “Vertigo,” followed by the very fun and energetic “Slippery Eel,” “Boulderdash” with Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny, and “Us Chickens” also has some more accessible moments for those who struggle to navigate through this heady bluegrass material.
That’s what you get with Béla Fleck: his assets are also his limitations for some, or most of the potential audience. Nobody would ever go second guessing Fleck’s prowess or creativity. But not everyone can follow along and find sincere enjoyment in the results. Not to compare everything in bluegrass in 2021 to Billy Strings, but that’s what’s so cool about him. Billy’s able to balance traditionalism, innovation, and top-notch instrumentation in a way that renders the music accessible to a curiously wide and omnivorous audience.
Make no mistake though, if you want to hear the absolute pinnacle of bluegrass in 2021 when it comes to just sheer blazing imagination and artistry, then accept no substitutes. Béla Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart are it, period. In fact, that’s been the case for over 30 years. This happens to be the third chapter in a trilogy he launched with 1988’s Drive and continued with The Bluegrass Sessions in 1999. My Bluegrass Heart is a masterwork, and a brilliant love letter to the bluegrass art form articulated by some of its greatest living artisans, led by one of the most creative minds of any musical art form.
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