Danny Barnes, the 2015 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, is a man of many talents and varied interests. Not such a common thing in today’s world of specialization.
If you follow mainstream bluegrass music, his may not even be a familiar name. Or as he put it when we spoke earlier today, “I’m kind of an underground person. And bluegrass is an underground music, and I’m deeper underground than that!”
But folks who keep tabs on the jamgrass scene know Danny well. He was a founding member of Austin’s Bad Livers, an acoustic trio who toured extensively during the ’90s. Their genre-bending music contained elements of Barnes’ love for traditional banjo music, along with elements of the pop culture of the day. Critics and fans heard aspects of punk, thrash metal and other contemporary music, but the idea all along was primarily to create something new and unique.
After the Livers dissolved, Barnes moved from his native Texas to Washington state, where he shares a home with his wife on the Puget Sound. He took with him a love for avant garde music, modern art and literature, and a determination to labor mightily at his craft.
In fact, he was doing just that when a package arrived from Steve Martin that not only contained a letter notifying him that he was the recipient of the award, but also a check for $50,000.
“I work really hard, I tour like crazy, practice like crazy… I do everything hard. The day that package came from Steve, I had gotten up at like 4:00 a.m. when it’s real quiet and I can get recording done. When FedEx came, I was kind of preoccupied. I saw that it was from Steve and thought, ‘Oh cool… he’s sent me one of his records.’
But then I thought… ‘Hey, I never gave him my address.’ I had met Steve earlier this year at a show with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and we got to talk a little bit, but I didn’t remember giving him my address.
When I opened it up and saw what it was, I was completely stunned. I was speechless. I’ve never won anything, and it amazes me that anyone knows what I am doing.”
But of course people in the banjo world had been following him closely. Through a number of solo albums of original music, sideman gigs with Nick Forster, and Tim O’Brien, and appearances on popular radio programs like Mountain Stage. He’d been invited to perform with Dave Matthews and Mumford & Sons, something that gets you noticed. And they recognized his ability to combine clawhammer and three-finger style playing – often in the same song – and his passion for using the banjo and old time music themes in his looping and ambient recordings.
He realized that as we talked a bit…
But looking at the names that signed the award letter – Noam Pikelny, Béla Fleck, Pete Wernick, J.D. Crowe… and Steve Martin! – that was like getting a letter from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in terms of the heaviness for me.
That’s more money than I can make in four years of touring. But for me, what’s really exciting is that people are looking at what I’m doing.”
Those people who signed the letter were among Danny’s heroes when he was learning to play as a child. He recalled slaving over the music of Crowe, and Scruggs, Don Stover and John Hartford when he was first learning. In fact it was catching Hartford on the Glenn Campbell Good Time Hour when Barnes was only 10 years old that started his banjo fascination.
He was a boy growing up in Texas with parents who had survived the depression, and were great fans of the earliest forms of country and bluegrass music. They encouraged their son in his pursuit of the banjo, and endured the hours of slowed-down music coming from his room as he devoured all the banjo music he could find.
“I remember it all seemed so magical to me as a kid. Watching Hee-Haw on TV and seeing all those great banjo players on there… getting my first copy of Banjo NewsLetter with a tab for Alan Munde’s Deputy Dalton, which I had been trying so hard to figure out from the record… waiting what seemed like weeks for new albums to come from County Sales, and then finding that hours in a hot truck to Texas had warped the first two tracks, but I kept it anyway rather than waiting another month for a replacement.
I especially remember getting Don Stover’s Things In Life album. He became such an inspiration to me. He wrote tunes that were really different and I spent hours trying to learn them. I still play his Black Diamond, but I don’t think I ever got it the way he played it.”
As a student of modern art, Danny is also excited about the piece of original sculpture that will be sent to his as part of the prize. He said that he doesn’t own any modern art, but had seen a photo of the piece that Sammy Shelor won when he received the Martin prize in 2011.
“I’m building a shelf for it, and it’s going to have an automatic light on it so that whenever I get down I can go look at it.”
So what will Danny Barnes be doing with the honorarium from his Steve Martin Prize?
“I’m going to invest it back into the art, back into the banjo community. I have a new record coming out in November, and then I’m thinking of doing a straight up banjo record. I’ve never done that, and I’ve started talking to some of the guys I’d like to have play on there with me.
I also have an idea for a contemporary piece for banjo, and I hope to finally get to work on that.”
Congratulations to Danny Barnes for this well-deserved recognition, and a tip of the hat to Steve Martin for his strong support of the banjo and bluegrass music.