Mars Needs Banjos

Hillbilly virtuosity

Never mind the 11 Grammy nominations and seven trophies. Everybody knows that Grammy means "endorsement by a bunch of conservative old farts" in Japanese. For musicians, the ultimate compliment is to have your music chosen in conjunction with a Mars Rover project. So Béla Fleck and the Flecktones must have known they'd hit the big time when their tune "Turtle Rock" was used by Cornell University in a Mars Rover video simulation.

OK, OK, so maybe Fleck knew he had made it before then. The 45-year-old musician has never needed a day job in his life. The dude has made a career out of being the greatest banjo player the world has ever heard! Fresh out of his New York City high school, he got a paying gig in a bluegrass band, and, as he puts it, "I've always made just barely enough to live the way I wanted." He admits that his paychecks have grown bigger as he's cemented his place among music legends.

Known for cerebral compositions that cross genres, Fleck has taken the banjo on a long, strange trip indeed. Those Grammy nominations? They're in the categories of jazz, bluegrass, pop, country, spoken word, Christian, composition, and world music. Song titles from his recordings include originals like "Mars Needs Women" and "Happy Drum Drum Monkey Girl" as well as covers of Johann Sebastian Bach. "I try to play banjo in today's world," Fleck says from his home in Nashville (he calls the Country Music Capital of the World "a good place to hide out"). "I try to be open and play in situations that don't normally have a banjo."

It was never a huge surprise that Fleck became a musician. Born to a cello-playing father, his first and middle names are those of three composers (Béla Bartók, Anton Dvorák, and Leos Janácek). During his teens, he was strangely intrigued by the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies, which inspired him to pick up the banjo. Had the music thing not panned out, Fleck has no idea what he might have done for a career, except that it would be "something detail-oriented"; he is "definitely" Type A when it comes to music; he has no other major hobbies. "When I'm not playing, I'm in the studio engineering."

Fleck recently toured with classical bassist Edgar Meyer (a live album from their collaboration, called Music for Two, hits stores April 27), but he sees the Flecktones as his long-term gig. The band -- Victor Wooten on bass, Jeff Coffin on sax, and Roy "Future Man" Wooten on a contraption called the drumitar -- tours infrequently, and each musician has his own side projects so that they don't OD on one another. Says Fleck, "Our goal is for it to be fun so we can stay together for a long, long time."

That reminds us! You know that ukulele that's gathering dust in your garage? Everybody knows that ukulele means "dream job" in Japanese. Doesn't it?

 
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