Banjo maestro Bela Fleck puts in impromptu appearance at Chattanooga Folk School

Béla Fleck
Chicago Tribune

By Casey Phillips

Banjo maestro Bela Fleck surprised a few dozen guests at the Folk School of Chattanooga on Friday with an impromptu appearance to perform and answer questions.

Fleck is a Grammy Award-winning musician and front man of the progressive jazz super group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He was in town for two appearances as a special guest of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera to perform his Banjo Concerto.

Before taking the stage, Fleck said Chattanooga was lucky to have an institution like the Folk School.

"This is great. I wish they were doing this in every town," he told Folk School co-founder and musician Christie Burns before starting an hourlong discussion of his background.

Burns introduced Fleck to the crowd of about 30.

"This is really one of the most special things we've done," she said.

His talent, she said, would inspire more than a dozen Folk School students gathered around Fleck in a circle.

Dressed casually in a purple button-up shirt and jeans, Fleck warmed up with a brief three-minute performance that raised eyebrows around the room.

For the next hour, Fleck responded to questions about his inspirations and his work on the documentary film and recording project "Throw Down Your Heart." He also explained various aspects of his playing style, including explaining why, as one young questioner put it, "[He] wears thimbles [picks] on his fingers."

Fleck repeatedly praised the Folk School for offering students a chance to learn techniques first-hand that he was forced to grope blindly after when he started. The school's teachers, he said, put the students on a fast track to musical improvement.

"You guys are lucky to have the Folk School," he said. "They'll save you a lot of time."

Fleck ended his visit with a well-received duet of the tune "Katy Hill" with local real estate magnate, philanthropist and bluegrass fiddler Fletcher Bright.

Folk School co-founder Matt Evans said Fleck's appearance was a surprise and exemplified how far the facility has progressed since its 2009 start.

"It's just a real privilege to have him," Evans said. "This is the kind of thing that we work to make happen. We're really grateful for him to do this gracious thing."