With nothing more than a couple of banjos, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn have pulled off something close to miraculous with Echo in the Valley. Of course, there’s more involved here than the instruments; the heart of the project is this husband-wife team’s virtuosity and vision. Speaking generally, Fleck is the revolutionary, the greatest innovator within this legacy since Earl Scruggs. Washburn stands a little closer to tradition; although it’s difficult to be sure without a video complement to these tracks, she seems not to venture too far outside of harmonic structure or slide in and out of adventurous single lines during solos.
Which is not to say that her contributions are secondary in any way. First of all, she sings all the lead vocals, sticking close to the tune rather than stretching out. But by simply singing the words and the tune, Washburn, like all the best who draw from folk performance practice, consistently invests each lyric with interpretive meaning.
This gives both players room to create instrumental backdrops that manage to be explosively inventive and unobtrusive at the same time. This is especially true on the more metrically varied compositions, such as “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” which begins in 5/4, switches to one bar of 4/4 and later goes into 7. It all flows smoothly, thanks in part to the constant presence of the tonic as the chords move.
Echo in the Valley is to bluegrass as Charlie Parker was to New Orleans in the ’20s: respectful of its roots, untethered in its ambitions and triumphant in bringing it all together.