SFOpera - Transcript of In Conversation with Jamie Barton and Béla Fleck

Transcript of In Conversation with Jamie Barton and Béla Fleck

TRANSCRIPT
July 29, 2021

Hi everyone. It's my pleasure to welcome you to this conversation with Jamie Barton and Béla Fleck. My name is Elena Park and I had the extreme pleasure of being in Nashville with both of these incredible artists. And then following Jamie Barton to her hometown in Georgia to find out more about her and her roots and her family and all these things that made her, the artist that we know and love today. This is the third installment in the In Song series of San Francisco Opera. We kicked it off with J’Nai Bridges and Pene Pati, and there's more to come, but with no further ado, I just want to welcome Jamie Barton and Béla Fleck.

Hi. Hey, great to see you both. Jamie, I know you're back in Atlanta at home and Béla, you've been just playing up a storm in Colorado, so I'm so glad you could join us today. 

Yeah, me too. Glad to be part of it. 

Yeah, seriously. It's nice to be back in Atlanta, but it's even nicer to be on, you know, zoom with Béla Fleck so, you know, and you, Elena, too. Well actually Béla, the first time Jamie and I zoomed with you and then you brought your banjos up and you're playing licks and just talking about how you might approach it every time you would turn it around and get your banjo Jamie and I were like, literally we were doing that. We were so excited. 

Well, I loved it. I loved it too. Jamie blew me away. Awesome. Great experience. Thank you. A real treat.

Starting with that, like Jamie, I mean, when we first started talking about this In Song, and you talked about your roots, bluegrass and the music that you grew up with, you immediately thought of Béla. Why Béla Fleck? I mean, he's always loomed large for me as just a towering figure of all kinds of musical exploration, but why Béla Fleck for this? Well, quite honestly, Béla, and we talked about this a little bit, but Béla's music is just about the most perfect like marriage of the two big parts of my musical life. There is the bluegrass, and then there is this progressive innovative kind of stepping outside of the—coloring outside of the lines kind of aspect of it. And I've, you know, I've been listening to you for years Béla, and so we were dreaming big. I honestly, I remember you were asking me all these questions, you were like, who would you want to—dream big? Who would you ever want to do something with? And I was like Béla Fleck. And it was a quite literal dream come true to get to actually like make music with one of, I consider you one of my musical heroes, especially like I said, that kind of cross-pollinization as classical meets bluegrass meets so much else. So yeah. 

Wow. Thank you. It's good to get older. 

Well, I should say a shout out to Sheri Sternberg at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass because it was through her that we got connected to you, Béla. And the festival was just a big help in putting this together. Why could you say yes, Béla? I mean, we thought that because you have such an expansive interest in exploring all kinds of music. I mean, everything from Zakir Hussain to Edgar Meyer to, I mean, all kinds of music, but when you got this ask and also it was, you know, deep in COVID time, not that we're not out of COVID yet, but what intrigued you to work with Jamie and say yes to this invitation?

Well first of all, I love taking my instrument and putting it out of its normal zone. And I think that's one of the things that I tend to be pretty good at, finding a way for it to sound normal in a place it's not expected to be. And so when I get an opportunity, it's like, I don't know how else to put it, except it was worth the effort because she is such a great singer, and just the idea of opera and banjo. I've never actually—I did a very small collaboration with Renee Fleming, but it wasn't opera material. And that's what actually intrigued me, was trying to play like be the accompanist I love accompanying vocalists, first of all, anyway, especially with just the one banjo for me, it's like pianists to accompany vocalists, it’s something wonderful about having all that room and being able to be the guy to play the chords and propel the song.

And, but just that her flat, her talent and personality made it a no brainer. And then in fact, she wanted to come to me too. It wasn't like, okay, you're going to do this classical stuff. I calling it classical, I don't know if I should, I don't know what I'm talking about in that world, but we also went into my world a bit. So, I don't know, it was a learning experience and it was really fun working up the arrangement, trying to figure out how to make that, I guess it was a loop part originally. I'm not sure what it was originally that fit the banjo and find the right key. And it was, I liked the challenge. It was really fun. 

Jamie, do you want to share some of what you shared with Béla as you were explaining what you were thinking and also the history with the lute and the way it was transcribed or not transcribed back in 1790, whenever that was when the Purcell piece was written. Totally, totally. I really, I thought of this piece and I think of Baroque pieces a lot, when I think of things that would translate really well to different instrumentation, especially what I would call bluegrass instrumentation, mainly because the way composers wrote songs at that point, wasn't to say, okay, this is exactly the music exactly as it is on the page, but more to kind of like give Nashville numbers and be like, okay, so this is this chord, this is this chord in between that you do what you want to, and you kind of meet up, you know, at these points, but you create the song new with every configuration of musicians that comes along. And so ‘Music for a While’ I've loved that song for a long, long time, and I just thought, you know, I think that this would be a good fit with a banjo just to be able to have this kind of instrumentation on it as a solo accompanist rather than as a part of a group and I'm really, really glad it worked out. 

Me too. I don't know too many opera singers who would know what Nashville numbers are. Maybe people out there don't know what they are either, but it's a shorthand for like, instead of learning what key you're in or, you know, anything, cause people are often playing with capos, you know, capo which changes the pitch of the instruments. So you're always playing sort of, instead of thinking I'm in C you think C is one and the four chord is F you don't have to think F anymore. You just think for one, four or five, you know, six minor, et cetera. And the people in Nashville who do a lot of sessions are amazing at looking at it. First of all, they can write down the chart as someone sings the song and they're ready to record it. As soon as they're done singing it, demo-ing it for them, and they can write these charts and read them. And then if then somebody says, oh, by the way, we're changing key. You don't have to write the chords all over again. You just go, oh, okay. Well, now, now we're in D we went up a half a whole step. So now I can do my same numbers. The numbers are the same, but we add a modulation. So it's a shorthand for studio musicians, just like, I think with classical music, a lot of the art of improvisation has slowly disappeared from it. Although a lot of people certainly improvise in huge ways with a dynamic mix and rhythm and so forth. But in terms of people playing their own cadenzas, that's more rare or back in those days when people would have a sketch that you play and you were good enough that you could see the sketch and play. I dunno what you would call it, that what Nashville numbers means in Baroque terminology. I forget what the wording is. It's not the figured basis. 

Yeah, that's it, that's totally it. 

So it was like a baseline and a rough harmonic, like outline. And then you got to just fill it all in like a jazz musician. And that's unfortunately the jazz and classical had diverged so far. Cause they really were much more similar way, way in the old days. 

Yeah, totally. And because there is that commonality between specific particularly, like the Baroque music and the modern music that you play and stuff like that. I was just like, this feels like it would be an interesting fit and what I loved, especially, Elena you're going to have to forgive me I'm just like taking over here. The banjo that you chose for the Purcell very specifically had this just hollow, beautiful, older kind of resonance to it. That it just, it honestly, it was just magical to my ears. You know, this is a good moment to just play a clip of the rehearsal. So we showed up in Béla's, front yard in early April in Nashville, and the two of them figured out the arrangement. So we have a clip of the rehearsal that prior to the next day, which was when we went into the studio and they did their recording. So let's see that first clip. 

It's just such a cool sound. 

This would be the viola—the cello of the banjo family, 

But I've always said that the viola is kind of the mezzo soprano of instruments anyway, so perfect. So what do you think, how should we do it? Maybe we just get into it and see how it goes. Cause I, I 

Guess we can do it a number of ways and see what we like, but I can just be very spare or I could be doing, I don't know. I like the second one, honestly. 

Like I like the kind of like almost a roll going in there. Yeah. 

Do you want that to pull back there and that sort of cadence, you know, where, when it goes, or do you want to keep it, I think, keep going until we get to the— 

Or we could wait till the next one to get there and we give ourselves a passage to get there and then give it that right before we get to the end. I don't know. 

I don't know. I kind of love the idea of it at the top of that section already having the banjo-ness in it. Okay. But it kind of building, do you think it could build from there? I can do you know, instead of I can do start doing things like there. Yeah.

There we were. That was just really cool. Seriously. It's intense. It's an intense moment when you're trying to figure out how a piece of music is going to go and you have to see, you know, you got to figure each other out. We had never met before that day and to make things even more complicated, you've got like a camera crew and all these strangers around and just trying to make believe it's normal, you know, but it's an intense thing and I'm intense when I'm trying to figure it out and not everybody likes me when I'm practicing. But I thought we had a really comfortable—we were comfortable. We were both really wanted to get something good. And we were comfortable dialoging about it. I can remember that from looking at this. Yeah, 

Yeah, no, it was certainly a, especially with the COVID realities and, just the amount of time that we had with the camera crew, we knew we kind of had a set amount of time to meet, talk about it, play with it before we literally, the next day went into the studio. But I think our intensity in rehearsal actually is complimentary because I like to call it my music nerd-dom. It's just, you know, that's when I get to be the full nerd that I actually am in real life. And to get to do that with another musician is just like, it's creative candy. 

And the truth is, you know, you nerd out and you talk about what if we, well, what do we do here? What do we, but then when you actually do the song, you just got to go with what really happens. And a lot of times it isn't that at all, but at least you've sort of looked at it and thought about possibilities and run them through your computer brain to let it spit out something either that or something else, because yeah, because once you start playing and doing the song, you know, really you can all, you can do it several times and get it, let it go it's different way each time and see what you like best. But if you try to put too much to make an exact like, perfect, it's going to move exactly this much here is not going to move here. It's going to pick up here. I'm going to, it just starts to, it loses some life because you just, you're just trying to perfect something that you've got in your head rather than allowing your humanity to influence each take, but we can always edit them later. You know, if you got a great this or that here, and something else was great, there, you certainly want the best parts that want to be able to hear the best parts if you know, but sometimes there's a magic to a single take too, you know, so, yeah, 

Absolutely. But I agree. I mean, like the trick is just to make like Whole Foods and be organic about it, you know, like just get together and trust that your ears and the musical brain behind the people that you're with if you get lucky is one that you live on really similar pages and you can just play with it, you know? 

Yeah, but you know, Whole Foods is owned by Amazon now, so I'm not sure how organic it is now. That’s true!

Béla were you more nervous. Nervous isn't the right word, but nervous about the Purcell versus, you know, the Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow, which is more in your typical wheelhouse, did you approach the Purcell with more trepidation? 

Yeah. One thing that happened with the Purcell is I worked on it like a dog for like weeks. And then we finally talked about it and discovered it was not in the right key. And then I rethought the banjo whole arrangement. And then I finally decided pick a different banjo and tune it so I could keep some of the work I had done. But aside from that, there's always more pressure in a set piece like that. Where for me, I'm playing a folk song, which basically Bury Me Beneath The Willows is. For one thing, it's in my wheelhouse and I know how to shade and color it differently spontaneously. I don't feel that way about the Purcell cause I was pretty much stuck to an arrangement and if the spontaneity would again be in the way it was interpreted, the feel of it, the tone of it, the vibratos or lacks of them, there's plenty of creative room there, but I really just really wanted to get it right. Cause I thought if I got it to sound like as good as a great pianist would, or a lute player, then it would really speak well for the banjo. Because again, I always feel like it's a poor stepchild or like a, it's looked down on by a lot of people, anytime I can play the banjo well enough for someone to say, Hey, that sounds better than I ever thought, you know? And great. That's my mission. You know? Cause the banjo gets a lot of grief. 

Well, I think we should listen to the clip of what actually happened in the studio. And I just wanted to say that Béla, it's such a great thing that you were able to get Chuck Anley to be our recording and mixing engineer. I mean, he's worked with George Strait and the Dixie Chicks and Lyle Lovett. And everyone is such a beautiful engineer in the studio, 

Mark Knopfler for many, many years. He's he does all across the musical spectrum, not just country, although he's a Nashville guy, I've known him since the eighties and he's been doing great work the whole time. 

Well, let's see that little clip. It's just the last part of the Purcell.

Béla that is just exquisite, the sound and Jamie, I mean, wow. Thanks to Chuck, I mean he knew what he was up to. He sure did. I haven't gotten to go to a real studio now in years, like all this whole time off, I'm just in my own little home studio with, I got some nice mics, but I don't know what I'm doing. You know, he's like the real thing. And it was a real studio and it was a little wiggy. Remember I was in one room, Jamie was in the other, we had to use headphones. We couldn't be in the same room. Although I think we probably could be, if it wasn't COVID time, it would have balanced out pretty good so it was being really, really careful. Everybody was really being understanding of the fact that I have kids who are not vaccinated. I don’t—were we all vaccinated by then? No. Yeah. Jamie, Jamie, you were yeah, yeah, 

Yeah, yeah. It was actually great. Cause when we were in your yard, your kids, they were bopping around and then you said they hadn't seen anybody in the longest time. Yeah. Because you all were, you know, sheltering in and staying safe and all of a sudden, you know, we show up and Molly McBride, my co-director and the camera crews and the sound people. And it's just like a little fun circus. 

Yeah. It was funny. Cause I remember, you know, you think about something like, oh what'd you do this song? Oh yeah, sure. We want to do that. Oh, do you mind if we come and have a couple of guys film and I'm like, sure, that's fine. Can we do it at your place? Great. No problem. And then all of a sudden, you know, people just start showing up. There's like a medical professional who's testing everyone for COVID, a port-a-potty shows up. Suddenly there’s like 12 people in our front yard. I mean I don't think I quite realized what was going to happen. And it was surreal. It was just surreal after being hidden in the way for so long, and really fun. You know, it felt very natural at the same time as it felt quite alien. After all that

We had one comment from Louis Silverstein, who said, I love the banjo in these songs so much. I was unsure how it would go. And it was perfect. I learned a lot. The two of you were stupendous. Thank you. 

Thank you, Louis, by the way, Hi. Louis I’m wearing my Superman shirt. You intuited she was going write in. Well, one of the things that I thought was amazing Béla when we started talking about this was it seemed like the two of you by all rights could have had different career paths because your name is Béla Anton Laos Fleck. And you grew up in New York City on the upper west side. Right. And Jamie Barton grew up in The Pocket, Georgia steeped in music of the church and bluegrass. And yet Jamie becomes a world renowned opera singer and you're like the bluegrass master. So it's kind of amazing that the two of you of come full circle together. 

It’s very strange really, but I guess it has something to do with something that's outside of your world coming and, you know, just being so different and so surprising that it sucks you in. And I never thought I would—I never could have imagined becoming like a Southern musician. I mean, I'm in New York City, upper west side guy, but I fell in love with the sound of the banjo and it riveted me and I can't explain why. And it's still a big question mark that I can't explain. And I think it was maybe similar to that for you, Jamie. 

Yeah, no, it really was. Whenever somebody asked me how I got into opera and classical music, especially when they hear that I come from, you know, I grew up on a farm with hippie parents, you know, and all that kind of stuff. The best answer I've figured out is teenage rebellion. I lived the first, you know, however many years, teenage years of my life in this really removed kind of place, surrounded by bluegrass, surrounded by church music and that sort of thing. But classical just, wasn't a part of my soundscape at all. And similar to exactly what you just said when classical music hit my ears, I was like, whoa, okay, wait a second. This is something very different, and I really love it. And you know, there went the path, but it was in an effort to find something to be into that wasn't anything close to what my parents had raised me on, which, you know, like teenage rebellion and brought me to classical music. I am the original nerd. It's true. 

Nerds are underrated, all the best thing is done by nerds. All the greatest achievements in the human race have been by nerds.

I am a little biased but I agree. Béla, tell us about the origin of your name. I mean, you're named after Bartók, Webern, and Janacek, I mean, was your dad hoping you were going to be a classical musician or a composer or something? 

This is ironic, but my father was, I'm pretty sure, he's gone now, and I'm not a hundred percent sure. I'm pretty sure, my mother and my father split up when I was one and I never met him until I was in my forties and I had to go find him. He was—it was just one of those situations. But he had tried to become an opera singer and even went to Vienna, or somewhere, and discovered to his dismay that he couldn't cut the mustard, you know, and was disappointed and became an incredible linguist and taught at University of Maryland for many, many years, but at any rate, so he's the one who named us. Now, they had some kind of a deal. It doesn't seem fair, but if it was a boy, he would name us. If it was a girl, my mother would name us and she drew two boys. So my brother, my older brother is Ludvig and I’m Béla, you know? And so he named us after all, but it was kind of like if you ever heard the song, A Boy Named Sue, you know where it's like, well, the reason I named you is that's how you learned to fight. You know, it was kinda like that. I just had these weird names and it gave me all of this sort of, I don't know, sometimes I relate to Star Wars. You know, the Luke, I am your father, all this stuff, you know, all these mysteries. And they made me come up—I had something to fight for, you know, I had something to prove my self worth and for some reason the banjo was my ticket. 

When I found it, I found something that just made me feel really happy and whole and excited. And, but it was also sort of a ticket out of my life I was in which, you know, really when now that I'm older, I look back and realize how fortunate and what a great life I had with, you know, in New York City. But I also, but a big part of me just wanted to get the heck out of there and go do something else and be something else. And somehow I just found this pathway. And, now, you know, I love my family. I have a great family, but it's just, you know, I guess teenage rebellion more of the same. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Well, talking about fathers, we spent a lot of time with Jamie's dad, Jim Barton, when we left Béla and went to The Pocket. So we just wanted to share this clip of two moments with Jamie and her father formative experiences. So let's watch that and we'll talk a little bit more. 

I got really curious about how he was singing something that sounded different from the melody of whatever hymns we were singing, but managed to match. It was a part of the music. What I remember is I knew that you weren't singing the melody. I knew that, but it sounded right. Yeah. That's all my brain could comprehend. You started harmonizing pretty quick. You caught up pretty quick. Really? Yeah, you were pretty quick. I remember back in 2014, it was the Wednesday before father's day. And I was going to come up and sing with you here. Can't remember what we were going to sing, but I'd had a hard year. That was the year I was going through the divorce and I had started dating someone and had understood that I was queer. And I was terrified to talk to you about that. And so I told you, I gave you the whole spiel of well I'm dating someone. I really like them, not using any pronouns to avoid the reveal that it was a woman. And then I said, you know, I think the only thing that might throw you is that it's a woman and you, it didn't take more than a split second for you to say, well, I love you. Ain't nothing ever going to change that. Nope. That's the way it is.  

Jamie I always, I get so emotional when I see you with your dad and he's the master of like, Nope. And he says like worlds in a syllable. Yeah. I mean, I'm what you guys chose to edit out for the episode of In Song is the fact that I was in tears probably directly after saying that last bit, you know, and talking with dad. I've got the best family, man. I just do. My mom and my dad and my mom doesn't make an appearance in this at all, unfortunately. But to have two parents who not only encouraged me from day one of me going, you know, I think I want to be an opera singer, you know, graduating high school in Armurchee, Georgia and knowing that I wanted to go into music and thinking, well, maybe vocal performance and choosing to go to a college where I didn't really get much of a scholarship. And I came from a really financially disadvantaged family and to have two parents who were like, okay, great. Let's figure it out. We'll take on some of the loans, you know, let's figure it out and give you a chance. Like that, number one, amazing. Number two, especially I think, as a southerner, and a southerner who comes from Christian family members to have the experience of realizing later in life that I'm bisexual. And knowing that I'm going to have to tell my parents at some point and sharing it with dad, I was nervous not because I thought that there was any chance that he would reject me. I knew that he would love me. I knew that it would be an okay thing, but what I didn't know was how long that would take, and my dad, I'm a little teary right now my dad, I love him more than any other man on earth.

Yeah, yeah, no, he is just an extraordinary human in every way and has given me nothing but unconditional love. And in that moment, when I told him, like I said, on the video, it took him no time to turn around and say, Well, I love you. Ain't nothing gonna change that. And I think when he said that I started like the Charlie Brown, tears like they just started shooting out of my face, but I, you know, growing up in the nineties in the south, I saw how bad it could be when kids came out to their parents. And even now, give to a charity here in Atlanta, it's called Lost and Found it is specifically a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth because there is such a problem in the south of kids being kicked out of their homes when they come out to their parents. And the fact that that just, I mean, it wasn't even, you know, I didn't have to worry about that. I didn't have to worry about him rejecting me. And he just turned around in one second. He said, Well, I love you. And there's nothing that's going to change that. I'm an incredibly lucky woman in so many regards. And that is one of the big ones to me on a personal level. I think Molly and I had this whole line of questioning for your dad. Like, are you shocked? She became an opera singer. Did you think the dreams were improbable? And I'm the daughter of immigrant parents who want very practical things so that you're stable and successful. And then after I spent a little time with him, I'm like, none of this was surprising. Anything you wanted to do, he believed in you. And so like there was no line of questioning. Were you surprised she's become one of the most glorious opera singers on the planet? Nope. He really is a man of few words sometimes. I think it's given you this base to be really brave,  in terms of who you are, what you want to express your activism. One of the things in the video is the moment where you were able to wave the gay pride flag on the last night of The Proms and caused you know, glorious response. And also I'm not uproar, but you're happy, proud to do it. And meeting your family, cause I've met other family members, I can see where that comes from. 

Yeah. Like you guys captured in the video and in us just sitting out on my Nana and Gramps’s porch, it's easy to be brave when you have that love and support behind you. And I just do, I'm one of the lucky ones I'm really, when it comes to a setup of family, we might've gone hungry, we might've had to make our clothes, we might've grown up in a trailer, but I never wanted for anything that was really truly important, you know? And that's extraordinary, honestly. Béla, it was wonderful to be around Abigail. Who joined Jamie and you for a song on the porch and to see your little boys running around I read that your grandfather was the one who gave you the banjo. Was he a big music fan or was it just—by fate that it landed in your hands and then you went on this path. 

He rented a carwash in Queens and then retired up to Peekskill, New York and he liked to go to garage sales on the weekends. And I had heard the banjo when I was five or six years old, actually at his house on watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV and watching TV was still a big deal back then, TVs, weren't all that, you know, all that new. And then letting us watch their TV and in my grandparents' room was a big deal. And this came on and it kind of blew me away. I never really told anybody about it. Cause it was kind of weird. Like I was—my brother was there and I said, did you hear that? And then it was Earl Scruggs playing the banjo, like the guy who started this whole three finger thing. 

He was like a God at the banjo in it. And I was just blown away and my brother was like, no, I didn't hear anything. You know? And I said, we'll wait till the end of the show and it'll come back and it came back on and then there, it was again, isn't there is there, what is that? He said, I don't know. I guess it's okay. But it stayed with me. And from then on, I was banjo aware, but I never told anybody because I didn't think anybody could actually ever play the thing. You know, it seemed impossible that anybody could actually play. Cause I never seen anybody do it. But then by the time I got to high school, which would have been, you know, 10 years later I got a guitar and I did some folk stuff. I never really told anybody about my banjo love. And then all of a sudden, because I played the guitar and my grandfather went to the garage sales, he saw a banjo, Dueling Banjos was out. You know, I don't know if it was because of that. But he got it, and then I came up to visit in Peekskill, and he said, oh, I got this maybe you'd like it, you know, $50 at a garage sale. And I was like, would I like it? And it just dropped into my lap. Like literally the day before I started high school at the music and art high school which is like the Fame school, which I had gotten in playing, Here Comes the Sun on the guitar. Well enough for them to think that they could teach me a real instrument, which was going to be French horn, which I never could learn. 

And, at any rate, I'm babbling here, but yeah, my grandfather, the short—your father's answer would be probably be did your grandfather give you the banjo, I would say, Yeah. Do you still play the guitar, Béla? Not much, it’s funny though. Every time I pick it up, it's like, I'm better than I was five years ago. The last time I picked it up just from all of the years of playing music and playing the banjo, which is not technically the technique isn't that different, but just it seems to, I play it less and less. I played it a lot in the early years, but yeah, there's a lot of guitar players and I just find my expression, but I write tunes on it. Like I get it out and write something because I don't know it as well as I know the banjo, I'm more likely to follow my ear and find a musical idea than I am to work with the banjo I kind of know it so well. It's a little harder to just sort of dig around and see what pops up, you know? Sometimes I tell people, you want to write something, go get an instrument you don't know how to play, and then you'll follow your ear. Your ear will lead you to find a harmony and melody that you like, and you won't go. I can't do that. That's too simple. Or your hands won't go into your familiar patterns. You can't, you have to follow your ear. So I use guitar and sometimes piano or mandolin for those kinds of things, but banjo is my love. And that's what I play.

So you're coming on to the first originally bluegrass release of your own music in 20 years. Is that right? Something like that, yeah. It’s coming out in September and Anna wrote, I just love this so much. I'm a bassoonist and huge opera nerd, but start started studying claw hammer style banjo during the pandemic and have really been enjoying it. Love the new Charm School track, Béla. I got turned onto your music through Paul Hansen and always love you, Jamie. This new album that's coming out, I listened to that Charm School track, you and Chris Thile and, Billy Strings, it kind of blew my mind is like new synapses formed. I mean, it's an eight minute odd track and it's just extraordinary. So 20 years, why 20 years and what can we expect on this album that's coming out soon? 

It's funny, I always thought I was underachieving whenever I made a bluegrass album in the past. So I would be like, you know, okay. My last record deal for my last record for Rounder Records in like 1988, I did a bluegrass record. It turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done in people's opinions called Drive. And it was with a classic lineup of musicians that were all just coming into their glory around then. And then in 1999, I believe it was, I made another record with those same musicians and also Earl Scruggs guested. And, then all these years went by where I was playing, you know, with Chick Corea, with the Flecktones with Zakir Hussain and doing things with the banjo that was really outside of it’s idiom, but meanwhile my brain is collecting ideas for the day that I would do it again.

And I was starting to have a backlog of tunes I had written that were just weren't right for these more progressive situations. But the one of the problems is one of the main people in that group, a guy named Tony Rice, was really not able to play, he was losing his ability to play. He had a lot of arm problems and he eventually had to kind of drop out. And for me, he was one of the main guys that made me want to play bluegrass for many, many years. If I could play with Tony Rice, I would drop anything to do it. Not that the other musicians weren't equally wonderful, but he completed the picture and he's one of those people that would bring things out of you that nobody else could do. So I was waiting and waiting and thinking maybe somehow he would come back around or get well, or we'd find a way to play together again. And then if I couldn't have him, I didn't really want to do it. And then he got to a point where it was clear he was not going to be playing anymore. And I just started thinking about it, this actually it was right during the pandemic, it was just before the pandemic, one of our children, I have a three-year-old now and an eight year old and the three year old, had some severe health problems that were very, very frightening. And we actually almost lost him. And for some reason after that happened and you know, everything was going to be okay. I just felt myself so compelled to go and make this record. 

It was no real good reason, but I was like a life or death thing I just reached. I just really wanted to make this new, this music and reconnect with all these people from my bluegrass community. This is a long answer, but at any rate and I started calling people up and I decided to start to experience the new musicians in bluegrass more and not just go with that same crew minus Tony Rice, but use those people if they wanted to. And they did. And new people like Chris Thile, who's now not really a new people anymore. Billy Strings is a pretty new people, but some of the people who had come up in these years while I hadn't been playing bluegrass Sierra Hall, for instance, Monsters Madeline talent, and Michael Cleveland, who's blind and an incredible fiddle player. And I started recording and pretty soon more and more people occurred to me that I really wanted to play with old friends like David Grisman and my teacher, Tony Trischka. And soon it was a double album and it all got recorded just before the pandemic shut everything down. And so all during the pandemic, I was—I couldn't go play music with anybody but I could go down to the basement and you know, work on editing and mixing, you know, with my favorite musicians at that world. And so this track Charm School, which was just released yesterday, they just announced the record yesterday, is with Billy and Chris Thile. And we had a session where we recorded, I guess, three pieces with that group. 

And then there's a whole lot of other sessions with a lot of other people. And they're all excellent. I mean, it sounds like I'm saying that about me. I'm really thinking about them. Like the people that came in and played their hearts out. And some of it was very challenging. And if you listened to Charm School, it's on the more challenging side and more pre improvising side, but there's also some very traditional sounding stuff. Bluegrass has a lot of different things today. It's not one thing it's a very wide topic. And so this record covers a lot of the different places in it. 

I saw that Sierra Hall said working with you was like working with Yoda, speaking of Star Wars. Speaking of Tony Rice, when you and Jamie were first talking about, Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow, it was the Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice version that you had Jamie listen to. Can you talk about why that version, and then we have a clip of you and Jamie in the studio doing, Bury Me that we want to share, but talk about working on that song together. You know, that version Jamie, before we met and had you already heard him?

No, I knew a couple of different versions, but had never actually listened to this Skaggs Rice version. Yeah. 

It's very stark and beautiful. It's just like, there's such a beauty to that starkness. No one's over singing. It's just very spare and I'm perfectly in tune. And I happen to know they recorded that record in either a day or two at the most, it was just they ripped through the whole album. It was just the two of them. And they may have thought they were underachieving. They made one of the great records of all time, in my opinion, Skaggs and Rice. It's just simple and pure and beautiful. And that song can either be a dumb song or it can be a great song depending on how you interpret it and what you make of it, like your figured chords or anything, you'll have to take a traditional song and embody it. And you certainly did. 

Thank you. It's funny, you were saying that the Purcell earlier, that that was the one that you were a little nervous about. And for me, hands down, it was Bury Me, you know, because while I did come from a place where I sang bluegrass for the formative years of my life, it's been a very long time. And the one thing I did not want to do was to get in there and sound like Leontyne Price. Like not that Leontyne, we love you. We love you, Leontyne, but I didn't want to sound like an opera singer who was struggling to sing with style, and the simplicity of what we ended up coming up with, I think really, really added to just this beautiful, delicate kind of presentation of it, a very vulnerable kind of sound to it. 

I think, first of all, you are an opera singer. So why shouldn't you sound like one and why would that be bad? Like, cause you gotta be yourself. But I think you found a way to sing a song that is very honest and had that, it's not stark like those guys with their sort of chiseled simplicity. It was a very you, and that's the best thing you can do in any musical situation is be yourself. That's what makes this, if you want Skaggs and Rice, go hear them. If you want to hear Jamie Barton, sing it, sing it like you sing it. And I think you did great. I’m like just thrilled. 

Thank you. I love it. I'm hoping for the day that we get to form a band and make an album, but we're getting questions about that from the audience. So we'll come back to that, but let's see a little bit of Bury Me, and then talk about that. And, Béla, when we were working with the editor, Steve Mallorca, I was working with all the footage. I love watching you play in your solo moments. And then the way that you look over at Jamie and you hold the space for her. I just love watching this. So anyway, here's the clip of Bury Me. 

I always think I just look so weird when I'm playing. I looked like so miserable and like twitchy and bizarre, you know, I don't think I looked like that as much in normal life, but when I'm playing, I'm just such an intense freak, nerd. Like every single note is so important to me and I can't control them all. And I'm like, oh, I'm trying to do this so good. And I can't. 

I love watching you play. And I love the intensity. And during the nerd conversation earlier, both Louis, of Louis and Clark, and Anna there, where they're all talking about the great thing about being nerds and going deeply into something. I just want to say that one of the questions is from Will Berger who Jamie and I know, well, the writer and Met Opera commentator. And he asks, was there a piece of music song or aria or anything that you discussed working on together, but didn't get around to what was the quote outtake and, you know, we have this plot, two of you getting back in the studio and then going on the road, or maybe a San Francisco Opera and a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, like joining forces and presenting you in a program, so what didn't you get to, or what's on your wishlist? Oh yeah. 

A broad question, man. I mean, from the classical side of things, I just they're so much like John Dalen music, like once again, early Baroque stuff. But then I also think of like Jake Heggie has some things that I think would be really, really interesting with different instrumentation. And then, like, I know we had, we were going back and forth on songs and I know I had mentioned Long Black Veil because I kind of loved the, the murder ballad type kind of thing anyway. Yeah, yeah, no there was a lot, I will say the outtake that I'm very sad that I don't have a copy of his getting to sing with Abigail when we did a little yeah, nice. I'm sure Steve, the editor will oblige actually. It was a lovely take. So we should have it.

It was a version of the same song. We, yeah, it was, she sang, I guess she sang the Skaggs high harmony to it. Cause I think she probably knows some other folk versions of it from a different world, a different time, but, cause she's more of a traditionalist than I am. She's an old time player, you know, and singer. I think there's so many things you can do once you just decide to do something. I'm just glad that we did this at a level. I mean, I think this is like release worthy. Like I'd be proud for people to hear it. And that means we've got two tracks for something. If there's ever an album, if people are making albums. I still do. But yeah, thinking of things that are challenging in fun ways, for both of us, you know, things that you wouldn't normally get to do or things that or sharing the discomfort, you know, nicely. So I got, yeah, you got, I got to learn a bunch of these accompanying and parts and find my way to make them my own. Then you have to learn some cool, weird trad stuff that you would never would have had to do or something, but it's gotta be stuff that means something to you that you can get behind and really love. 

Yeah. Yeah. And there was a question from Jen Hughes for Béla. How much opera music did you study up on before you met up with Jamie for that meeting in your yard? Or were you just focused on those particular pieces that you played and sang together? 

Yeah. I don't know much of anything about opera, frankly. And I mean, one guy who I’ve always talked to him about opera is Branford Marsalis. I think I remember back in the day when there were record stores, he'd come to Nashville and we were friends a bit and said, Hey, want to get together and go, you know, have a meal, no let's go to the record store. And he goes straight to the opera section and he would just say, oh, this, this, that you did. He just walk out with all this stuff. And he just loved it. But I don't know much about it. I'm just trying to make good music as best as I can. There's a lot. I mean, I don't know that much about Indian music and I get yet I get to play with Zakir Hussain and he's the master. And so I just have to do my best to like make good music, whatever that is without that knowledge base that I have in other forms of music, it's kind of like with Chick Corea, I'm not a jazz musician, but I play one on TV. You know, I'm playing with the greatest jazz pianists, one of the greats of all time. And here I am like, I don't know what I'm doing. So there's a certain unconscious where you grab a bunch of the talent of the person you're playing with you osmosis it. And you let, like, you let them influence you. If you just kinda relax and let it happen, you can get pretty close where at least it's good music. And maybe you don't know, like when bluegrass, I would be able to tell you how, you know, every banjo player played this tune from, you know, Earl on to now, I might be able to say, well, he did the pull off this way. 

Or he played the melody, this where he used the backward rolls, or he stayed in the high register. He, and we would debate about it. And I can't do that in most of them, most of the music, like when I did my African project, I don't know, I'm no expert. I just love music. And I love interacting with people and trying again, trying to like soak up their trip as best as can be done and do as much as work as I possibly as do as much work as I can to be prepared. So that it's possible that it could turn out well, we take a lot of work. 

It's great that your brother did the documentary on you with the Africa project so that people can, 

It was and it was great that we had the last cut too, cause there's plenty of stuff on that Africa trip where I didn't sound that great. But by the time we got the great stuff, there was more than enough for a great recording and movie that really, that showed what we hope for that a really successful collaboration. If somebody else had cut it together, it might not have looked so successful that we knew, it was lucky, it's all relative to anyway. 

Well, Jen Hughes thinks first of all, she wants to know when she can see you collaborate live in future. And she thinks a nice gospel set with opera mixed in would be nice. So already your program is taking shape. Jamie, do you think this is gonna, I know you've got some other things up your sleeve. Do you think this is something you're going to be exploring while satisfying your opera fans? 

Well, I certainly hope so. I really do. This is something that has been in the back of my brain for a long time of, Man if I get lucky enough, I would love to do this kind of thing. And hilariously enough, Béla I'm really excited to get this album of y’alls and I'm definitely going to have to go listen to the track. Because on Sunday, guess who's getting to sing with Chris Thile. Oh, we're doing this pop-up concert in Brooklyn, where I'm doing a set of classical stuff. And there are a whole bunch of other musicians it's kind of a variety show kind of thing. And then at the end we were chatting today about it. We're going to be covering doing the Sarah Jarosz and Chris Thile version of The Tourist by Radiohead. Which I think is, I love that cover of it so I'm excited about it.

You’re going to love playing with him and he's going to love playing with you and please give him my best. He's amazing. 

Yeah, I, for sure will. I really, really will. And Elena, just to answer your question, I am just full on putting it out in the universe that if more of this stuff comes along, I'm there with bells on. I would love to not only just for my own, like I want to do this kind of thing, but also I think it's really important for artists to stretch in whatever direction they really want to stretch in. Because I think that quite honestly, that opens up the doors for new audience members, whether they be opera audience, bluegrass, or whatever to feel welcome, and to feel heard in their own musical tastes. So that for me is just, that's the goal at the end of the day. Yeah. I want to sing in all these places, I want to sing all of these pieces, but at the end of the day, I really just want to create a couple of hours for audience members to have a moment where they feel catharsis or connection in whatever way I can. And if being able to do more of this will enable that, then I'm here for that. 

You could just let it develop. You could, you got to start here, you could do some stuff with Chris. You had made do an album with a variety of people that endure that, where you interact in this world, or we could get back together and come up with a couple more songs and there's no hurry. You know, you can build a record over a course of years. And have it naturally grow or presentation, or you might have an opportunity where somebody asks you to curate something and you can bring in some of the people you're interested in that may lead to some more cool tracks that you could see fitting in and you just let it grow and let it develop. And, yeah. 

I do love that with this series that Matthew Shilvock in San Francisco Opera and Greg Henkel have put together, one of the J’Nai’s version had spirituals and Pene Pati’s had Samoan song. And then here, there's no boundary between classical and bluegrass, you know, it's just good music. We have a question from Natalie Brender, and she says, it's a grandiose question, so get ready. What's at stake for the future of opera and classical music and showing that collaborations such as this are possible, and that opera people can cross musical boundaries. Oh man. Well, I have been endlessly inspired by the brains that cross genres, to begin with Béla, like we talked about at the beginning, you've always been a part of what keeps my brain just going, Ooh, what's next? What's next? What's there. What's you know, and I know within classical music, we spend so long going through school, going through training spending years, sometimes decades trying to hone the craft so that we're singing in the correct style with the correct technique. And it's a real athletic kind of thing. It is both a brain focus as well as a coordination in a way that just is different from other things. But that being said, it's not superior. It's just another mode of expression that is really beautiful and really profound, alongside other modes of expression that are also really beautiful and really profound. 

Some people dive head first into classical music and that's where they feel their, their ears and their heart strings are really attached. Some people dive into bluegrass or, you know, any variety. I guess the big answer for me is just that I don't want there to be this idea that classical music is somehow better than others, because I don't think it is. I think it's incredible, but I also think that there are so many other ways of expression and telling stories that are just phenomenal. And if I get lucky enough to step outside of the normal offer bounds and to be able to create music and tell stories in different ways, then I think I'm made better as an artist. And I have to believe also that once again this connects with other people, and if I connect with more people than isn't that the point, you know, that's, I don't know. That's kind of where I go with that, but yeah. 

Yeah. Well, I can guarantee you that the people that love bluegrass think it's, you know, just as good as the people that love opera think opera is good. You know, it moves them and it’s their music, and they, you know, they're passionate about it. And there's that same thing where somebody will say, oh you're not doing it. You know, you're playing with other people doing this, all this stuff. You're not really doing bluegrass anymore, and it's not. I wish you wouldn't do all that other stuff, everyone's got to make their own choice, but I'll tell you this. These musics are not like superstars of the music are not billionaires and you do it for love. And if you have a way that you can open up and like reach outside of your music and find people outside of your world and fall in love with your music too, that wouldn't have heard it before. 

Well, that's a great thing because, if you want to keep doing it your whole life, you need people to like it. You need ears. So I figure whenever I get to play with people outside of my world, that don't know me, or, you know, or don't have those expertise, they don't have that understanding of the banjo, what it can and can't do, and I can change their perception. That's just a great gift to me when I go, so going to India and playing with Zakir, one of the greatest musicians of India and a whole bunch of people never heard the banjo. I got to hear it. And, you know, and if anybody is going to say, Hey, you should be playing bluegrass. I'm like, Hey man, you don't know what I just got to experience, you know, what a trip it was to go there and what, how I wouldn't give it up for anything that the experiences that I've gotten to have outside of bluegrass. But that said, I wouldn't give up bluegrass either. I mean, it's the center. It'll always be the center of what I do, whether I like it or not, you know, it's so inside of me, it's such a big part of me that when I inevitably am bringing bluegrass to, you know, to Purcell or to India or to Chick Corea, I'm bringing in the, maybe they're playing with me because that's something new to them. But, be you, you be you I'll be me. And I also understand the people that are such purists. They're like, no, you know, that's not what I like about bluegrass. What I like about bluegrass is it’s that earthy, honest, old fashioned sound. And this new stuff is not what I signed on for when I fell in love with bluegrass. I understand that. And then they have a right to, you know, they have a right to like what they like and love what they like. 

And Béla, I have one question, just getting to observe you at work and the rigor with which you like approach the work, the practice. And you're such a perfectionist when you're playing live, are you more liberated? And because you are, you don't have to have it be perfect because you're in the moment and there's something happening in the energy of the thing, because just watching you work really was a treat for me, but I just wonder, can you just relax in the life?  

You just said it. The fact that you can't do it again at a live show is liberating. You have to embrace everything that happens. And as Bobby McFerrin once said, the secret to improvising is don't stop and don't look back. And so I have both of those personalities. I have that like piggy nerd that's gonna like beat that one little section of the songs 25 times to try and get it as good as I can. And then I have that side that lets it all go and just goes forward and let the chips fall where they may and embraces whatever happened, whether it was what I hoped had happened or not. And in fact, when you improvise, have you ever heard of like how in comedy, when you do an improv comedy when someone throws out a line, you can never go, Well, that's not a good line, you will always have to embrace whatever is thrown at you to do good improv comedy. You can't be critical. You can't be critical during the moment. And that's the way improvising and playing music is live for me. It's no time to be critical. You can be critical some other time. Now it's time for love and openness and embracing, whatever everyone else played and sang, and responding to it in real time. And that's the art of that. And I like doing both, 

We're coming onto the end of our time, sadly, and thanks for answering the question cause I was, I just loved seeing both, and one of my namesake Elena Moon Park whom your wife, your partner knows, said that she's seen you perform more than anybody else, any other musician, she's a Fiddler. And so I hope to hear you live and I see on your website that you're like hitting the road and touring all over the place. So hopefully sooner, rather than later, I can see you with your live band and Jamie, you're going to be in the Bay Area soon for San Francisco Opera with another trailblazer Eun Sun Kim, can you tell us about what's coming up? Absolutely. Absolutely. I am just delighted that we're getting the band back together via the Rusalka band of Eun Sun and Rachel Willis Sørenson. We were there, gosh, was it 2018 near there? I think in the summer doing Rusalka and San Francisco is so, so lucky to have Eun Sun Kim coming into the house to be the new music director. And so they called me and Rachel and said, Hey, y'all wanna come in and do this gala for us to start the year off. And we said, heck yeah. So we get to be back together as, oh gosh, I cannot wait to sing with the orchestra. Again, the SFO orchestra is just one of my favorite bands to sing with hands down. So it's just going to be a love Fest, a love Fest with a lot of very loud and very, very pretty hollerin’ happening, really excited. 

I never got to play. I was just going to say, I've never gotten to play with them, but my wife Abigail has gotten to work with MTT in China and yeah. Yeah. 

Okay. So the San Francisco Symphony is who she worked with then. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Yeah, no, this is the opera orchestra. Oh, sorry. I there's probably some crossover there, but I actually across the street and I actually haven't worked with the Symphony yet. Apparently they’re a great band too.

But I don't think it's announced yet. And I can't say where exactly or what, but I do expect to be in San Francisco, myself at the end of September for a large outdoor event that I can not divulge at this moment.

Okay. Let's check your website. Yeah. It’ll be announced pretty soon. And the Jamie concert that she's doing on September 10th is going to be streamed live to the ballpark. Yeah. Yeah. Super exciting. 

Have you ever sung the National Anthem at a ball game? 

I haven't. I haven't. I used to joke for years that my family wouldn't think that I had actually made it until I sang the National Anthem at a Braves game. But no, it hasn't happened yet. Joyce DiDonato, she got to sing the National Anthem at the World Series. So maybe it's just a matter of time, Jamie. And Renee sang it at the Super Bowl.

Superbowl. Yeah. Yeah. And that's fabulous Vera Wang dress. Oh my gosh. Well, thanks to both of you for being so generous with your time in Nashville and then also Jamie in Georgia. And, just want to give a shout out again to Sheri Sternberg and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for helping broker this magical pairing, and Carol and Dixon Doll fund the Creative Edge Fund that makes these kinds of projects possible. So to everyone who hasn't streamed it yet, I only played little snippets of the two songs that they did in full. And there's a lot more in there. So please watch the feature, tell your friends, and then stay tuned for the album, which is coming at some point between these two. Hopefully, you know, wishes. 

Definitely possible. Thanks Elena for having me and Jamie, what a treat, what a treat. I hope we get to do a lot of stuff over the coming years. It'd be really fun. 

Yeah. And Hey, maybe the next time we see each other, it'll be okay to hug. That'd be nice. 

That would be nice. Yeah. I think it's moving in that direction. We've got a little more to get through here now.

Thank goodness. Stay safe in your travels with your tours. And thank you again seriously for taking on an opera singer in the middle of a pandemic. It was just so much fun. It was really a highlight of the last year and a half. 

I was just joking. Sorry. That's super spreader. The one thing you shouldn't collaborate with during a pandemic is an opera singer. Okay take care. Thanks everybody. Bye.