I can remember the first time I heard Bela Fleck's seminal progressive bluegrass recording (CD, album, record? What do we call it these days?) "Drive." It was roughly 2005 and I was driving (ha) back from Leavenworth, WA after having climbed in Icicle Creek Canyon. Cresting over Stevens Pass in early fall when the larches are just turning, the air is crisp, and the winter clouds haven't yet returned is a pretty damn good time to be in the Pacific Northwest. "Drive" is a perfect soundtrack for such dramatic scenery.
Descending back to the Puget Sound and my home in Seattle, I was immediately taken with this music. I was already deep into bluegrass music, but this was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was traditional but sounded completely fresh. It was virtuosic but singable. High level picking but with feeling man! Each song painted a different vibe. Something awfully lacking in a lot of bluegrass music. And it was already 15 years old having been released in 1987, but it sounded completely modern. The influences were all there. Earl Scruggs, Celtic music, a bit of classical, a bit of rock, and for sure some old time fiddle music too. The album would be something of a pinnacle and turning point for Fleck. After this recording, he would turn his attention away from Bluegrass, both traditional and progressive, to form the Flecktones, play classical, neo-classical, African music, write a banjo concerto and who knows what else. And there you have it. He's been nominated for more Grammys than any other musician in the history of the award. Bamm!! Take that banjo jokers.
One track in particular stands out, and I think it's safe to say it's THE track on the CD. That would be Slipstream. A weird tune indeed. A simple melody but with all these weird starts and stops and time signature shifts. It's like nothing else, and I still think it's cool. But I've found it tends to divide pickers. Traditionalists seem to hate it since it's kind of a progressive anthem of sorts. Newgrassers love it and in my opinion, it is something of a rite of passage for the aspiring progressive grass picker. It's hard to play on any instrument and requires great time and solid chops.
My journey with the tune has been long and kind of funny. It has tracked my growth as a picker and still kind of defines what I like about bluegrass banjo. I remember riding in the car many years ago with my friend Ethan and I suggested that it would be cool to play Slipstream. And he shot me a glance and said, "yeah but the cool thing about it is all the little stuff that they do." End of conversation. He meant that I or anyone we knew was not up to the task. Fair enough. Drive features the BEST pickers in progressive bluegrass music. But you can't win if you don't play. I had to at least start learning the tune.
Fast forward another 7 years and I have Slipstream just about where I want it. It wasn't easy and I'm still working out a couple kinks, but its getting close! It employs a lot of trickery and like I said, you need great time to play it right. There are a lot of details or, like Ethan said, "little stuff" that you have to get right. Bela probably wrote it in an afternoon back then I'm sure. Although I'm not sure he plays it anymore himself. At a Sparrow Quartet concert I saw, someone shouted out "Play Slipstream!" when Bela took over for a solo number. He quickly grabbed the mic and bluntly said, "That ain't gonna happen!" Let's face it, Slipstream is hard to play even for Bela Fleck.