Béla Anton Leoš Fleck was named after three important 20th-century composers — Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, Austrian composer Anton Webern, and Czech composer Leoš Janáček.
His 16 Grammy Awards were borderline predestined.
To his generations of fans, the New York native is simply Béla Fleck, who is now striking out solo, illuminating the possibilities of the five-string banjo with new music and old tunes from his 40-year career.
Before his upcoming concert on Sunday night at Guild Hall, Fleck caught up with The Sag Harbor Express to talk music, family life and early childhood influences — namely, the theme song from “Beverly Hillbillies” — and what it means to command a stage on his own.
The Sag Harbor Express: How are you feeling about your upcoming show at Guild Hall?
Béla Fleck: I am stoked to perform solo. I’ve been working towards this for some time, and I’m feeling very enthusiastic about the things that one banjo can do, and the freedoms I will have to explore.
What can we expect from your set list?
Fleck: I will have four banjos, probably. These will have different tones and tunings and give me some sonic variety. The list will include classical, African, jazz and bluegrass. Also there will be a healthy dose of my original material. I might even take some requests.
There are some stories, for sure, which I will tell. One about playing for four living U.S. presidents, one is the mystery of John Hartford’s capes and the third about being pulled over for speeding by Earl Scruggs’ nephew. Wait for it!
Let’s back up to your childhood — and Earl Scruggs. Tell me about watching “Beverly Hillbillies” in the early 1960s.
Fleck: I figure I was 4 or 5 years old. And something about Earl Scruggs’ amazing banjo work stopped time for me. I still remember it clear as day. From then on I was an activated banjo person, in that I was now aware and excited by the sound of the instrument, although I had yet to run across one in person.
How long did it take you to pick up a banjo yourself?
Fleck: I never got a banjo for myself, because I never thought I would ever be able to play it. It seemed that no one could possibly play that instrument — it was so very fast and complex, yet very earthy.
When I was 15, my grandfather bought me one, at a garage sale, just for yucks, and I could never put the thing down — which continues to this day.
What has been the biggest challenge while coming up in the music world?
Fleck: Finding the right people to play with is always challenging. Once you do though, you can really improve fast and make a lot of progress in the “biz.” The music business challenges are quite different nowadays then they were in the late 1970s when I began. Having previously gotten to the point of reaching an audience, now the problem is you don’t get paid for the recordings anymore.
Has there been a moment in your career when you realize you’d landed?
Fleck: There have been several times when a hero became a peer. This started in the bluegrass world, where I eventually got to play with nearly everyone I was a big fan of, and it later continued in the jazz world. When I started playing duet concerts with Chick Corea, I was rather impressed with myself! Playing on stage with Dave Matthews Band on their first Stadium tour was another of those “How did I get here?” moments.
What is your songwriting process like nowadays? When the mood struck, you used to call yourself and leave voicemails.
Fleck: These days it’s voice memos. It’s the quickest way to catch an idea before it’s gone. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have some 5,000 of these that need to gone through, looking for tunes I have written and forgotten. But you must capture an idea immediately, or it is gone. Keeping the banjo in my hands stimulates a lot of writing. And shows like this one also encourage creating new material.
How do you feel about performing a solo show without your wife, Abigail Washburn?
Fleck: I feel fine about it, because our duo is far from done. We will tour together again starting in December. We have 6-week-old baby, and she certainly deserves a break! But I need to keep my game up and running, and playing solo is one of the most challenging things one can do. I am preparing intensely and should be ready for the first solo run.
Béla Fleck will perform a solo concert on Sunday, August 5, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Tickets range from $65 to $150, or $63 to $145 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.