Song Stories: Béla Fleck’s “Big Country”

If you’ve ever found yourself immersed in the world of banjo, you’re probably familiar with the work of Béla Fleck. He has, after all, won a number of Grammys with the Flecktones, been nominated in more genre categories than any other musician and is widely considered one of the most creative and technical banjo players alive today. All that is to say: If you’ve never listened to a Béla Fleck tune, you should. And there’s no better place to start than one of his more recognizable songs, “Big Country.”

When an idea for a song popped into Fleck’s head in the days before iPhone voice memos, he would call himself and leave a voicemail recording of the tune so as not to lose the inspirational spark. That’s exactly what Fleck did with “Big Country,” which came to him while he was driving in his car. Although Fleck is a banjoist, the tune for “Big Country” didn’t initially strike him as a banjo song; he heard it as a simple melody or something that could make for a good bass line.

It was only when Fleck went to record the song with Edgar Meyer that it finally occurred to him that “Big Country” might be a banjo song after all. From there, the song began to develop. As with all of his songs, Fleck used the folk process, taking a variety of influences and swirling them around inside himself until a composition came out. Today, he can even pin down the visual and sonic art that inspired “Big Country,” in particular recalling the films that he drew from. Although most artists often wish inspiration came from nowhere and that their creations had no external influence, Fleck says, he finds the folk process to be the most effective when composing.

Improvising is another big factor in Fleck’s compositional process. As he says, composing is slow-motion improving and improvising is fast-motion composing. When you’re in the moment, you don’t have time to mull over every musical possibility, so you simply go with the flow without editing yourself. Having the creative freedom to play without self-consciously picking at and rearranging every note is imperative to Fleck’s creative process. Of course, the exacting processing required to edit his music afterwards is always important, but if you’re critical like that while you’re being creative, he says, you simply can’t create.

Check out Béla Fleck in our most recent installment in the Song Stories series as he discusses the appraisal of his 1939 banjo, talks about the creative freedom that came with developing his electric banjo, and performs “Big Country.”

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