With one eye on using the banjo to showcase America's rich heritage and the other pulling the noble instrument from its most familiar arena into new and unique realms, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn's second album Echo in the Valley is simultaneously familiar and wildly innovative. Echo in the Valley is the follow up to Béla and Abigail's acclaimed, self-titled debut that earned the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album. This time around, the mission was to take their double banjo combination of three finger and clawhammer styles "to the next level and find things to do together that we had not done before," says Béla. "We're expressing different emotions through past techniques and going to deeper places."
The results are fascinating, especially considering their strict rules for recording: all sounds must be created by the two of them, the only instruments used are banjos (they have seven between them, ranging from a ukulele to an upright bass banjo), and they must be able to perform every recorded song live. With the exception of a few restyled traditional tunes, all tracks on Echo in the Valley are originals, and are largely co-written – a different creative approach from their first album, where songs were mostly his or hers. Echo in the Valley reflects relevant issues while simultaneously connecting us to our past through wild re-imaginings of traditional pieces.
New original tunes range from "Over the Divide," a song inspired by Hans Breuer, who worked to ferry Syrian refugees to safety, to "Blooming Rose," inspired by Native American voices and lamenting a continual distancing from nature, and "Don't Let It Bring You Down" is an emphatic mantra for hard times. Clarence Ashley's "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" has been turned into a rural blues, and Béla's well-known piece "Big Country" is framed by the traditional Appalachian tunes "Sally in the Garden" and "Molly Put the Kettle On," a medley Béla and Abigail performed hundreds of times on stage before recording. "Come All You Coal Miners" is the point-of-view of coal-miner advocate Sarah Ogan Gunning, whose passages remain poignant and powerful today.