Danny Barnes talks banjo influences, inspiration, and extra early mornings

You could call Danny Barnes a musician with a mission. Of course that’s not unusual; most musicians can claim to be on a path of their own choosing. Yet for Barnes, a banjo picker and pioneer whose career dates back some 40 years, that mantra continues to steer his journey forward. He’s never been beholden to any one genre — indeed, his stylistic sojourns have encompassed several touchstones, from bluegrass and blues to such disparate endeavors as punk, Gospel, jazz, folk, electronica, and all manner of experimental endeavors.

He credits the fact that he writes his music on the banjo, and that’s what gives it its distinct dynamic.

That inclination towards unabashed expressionism has been true since the beginning. Although heavily exposed to bluegrass and traditional music as a child — he says he derived his earliest influences from watching episodes of the offbeat sketch comedy series Hee-Haw featuring the instrumental acumen of the show’s stars Stringbean and Grandpa Jones — he quick made a point to explore any avenue the instrument would offer, with John Hartford leading the way. Danny’s path diverged early on when he connected with the Bad Livers, an insurgent string outfit based out of Austin, TX that would go on to release ten albums throughout the ’90s. In spite of his edgy attitude, Barnes’ undeniable acumen quickly brought him a highly respectable reputation as a picker and player. 

Other efforts followed — a short-lived stint with an outfit known as Thee Old Codgers, a series of self-released outings under the moniker of the Test Apes, as well as an extended, ongoing number of solo albums dating from 1999 through last years critically acclaimed offering Man On Fire. 

The work’s paid off. Man On Fire brought Barnes a Grammy nomination this year for Best Bluegrass Album. It’s not his first honor — he’s a 2015 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, and was previously inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.  Still, he insists that his satisfaction derives simply from the fact that he was singled out. “The way I feel about it, it’s already a win for me,” he suggests. “At this point, I’ve already got a big boost out of it, no matter what happens. Everybody’s super cool in that category and they all know each other. We send each other congratulatory messages. It’s the opposite of cutthroat. That’s the cool thing about bluegrass. It’s pretty much like a family thing.”

Still, due to the problems caused by the pandemic, Barnes has no plans to attend the ceremonies. 

“If things were normal, I’d consider it,” he muses. “In my category, they do all that stuff during the day anyway. It’s not like Prince or Kanye. I don’t think they’d even let me in there. I’ll just do what I do. It’s better than just running down there and renting a tux.”

Those independent instincts are, in fact, a hallmark of his continuing MO, one seeped in self-satisfaction and the hope that the rest of the universe can catch up to him, but not vice versa. 

“I just stay real busy with what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m not real good at figuring out what people want. Sometimes I simply have no idea.”

And yet, it doesn’t seem to have mattered.

“The difference between that bigger world and what I’m doing, is that I can sell it to people who are already into it,” Barnes explains. “Otherwise, you kind of have to dress it up to sell it. I don’t have to sell it to people who follow me, because they’re already onboard. When you go sell your merch, you meet really nice people, sometimes a lot of different generations of the same family who have come to hear the music. Some of those people have been into me since they were in college, and now they bring their kids out to the shows. The first time you met him was maybe in 1992, and he bought a CD and a teeshirt, and the next time you meet him, he brings his girlfriend, and the next time you see him they’re married, and the next time they bring their kids, and the next time their kids come on their own.”

That’s not to say individual entrepreneurship doesn’t present its challenges.

“It’s not the easiest way to go about it to be sure,” he allows. “Looking back on it, my big blessing is that the only people I have following me are typically super hip. I didn’t intend for it to be this way. I’m not looking at the market and figuring out what I want to do. I’m doing what I want to do, and figuring out how to sell it. It’s a different operating system from the ground up. Looking back, it became kind of a blessing that I didn’t know what I was going to get. Now, 40 years later, I have some 3,500 people that keep up with what I’m doing, really keeping up with it. They’re probably all in bands or writing poetry or directing films. It’s really weird. They’re really cool. You’ve got to do some research to find out I’m here. You generally don’t find someone who’s doing stuff that I’m doing, so you really have to dig around. But that’s still a shitload of people right there… and yet a lot of people get weeded out. Typically, I only work with the coolest people. That’s been a huge blessing for me. I didn’t really realize that by pursuing my vision that would be the natural outcome. It’s kind of a developed concept. I get to do these cool gigs in venues where you can hear everything and there’s not a fight going on at the same time.” (Chuckles).

Indeed, Barnes feels fortunate, and he’s not reticent when it comes expressing his good fortune. “I’m really blessed,” he says. “My record company, ATO, never tries to interfere with what I do. It’s always, ‘Yeah, that sounds super cool.’ I have all these friends who play on my records because they love what I do. They don’t need to play on my records; they’re only doing it for the love of the music. They’re not going to get a career boost out of it at all. Maybe they’re getting less! (Chuckles) For me, it’s simply unbelievable to be able to talk to brilliant people. After all, a good opinion is really hard to come by.”

That being said, Barnes may be too modest. The people he’s worked with include any number of notables — Dave Matthews, Bill Frisell, Darol Anger, Chuck Leavell, Wayne Horvitz, Dirk Powell, and the late Jeff Austin, among them. They’re friends, but also fans, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve covered his music as well.

“When guys do your music, then it means you’ve had some kind of impact of them,” Barnes reflects. “I continue to hope that I can really develop the art part. A lot of times, people focus on the social media and all the gyrations you have to go through to do well in that field. But sometimes you spend so much time on that, that the art isn’t really developed. It’s a lot harder way to go, but the end result is you have a lot more to show for it, especially if you really stick to it like I have. It really takes that long. Writing songs is not that easy. You make a lot of mistakes and they all show up on your records. Especially now, when you’re immortalized on YouTube. It can be kind of brutal. (Laughs) A person that does what I do has to work very hard. I’m kind of a small fish, so I have to keep an eye on everything. Plus, I have to make all this stuff. It’s just an unbelievable amount of work in terms of hours I put in during the week.”

It may not seem surprisingly then that his workday begins in the wee hours of the a.m., a time when many musicians are either wrapping up a gig or still sleeping soundly.

I get up at 4:00 in the morning,” says Barnes, a former Texan who now resides in Washington State within a glance of the Canadian borders. “You can’t get up before me. That’s the best time to meditate. It’s called the ambrosial hour, between four and six. The three hours before the sun comes up are like the primo time. It’s the most peaceful time, the most valuable time, the most powerful time. That’s when I hit the beach and start my day. I like to get up early and work. That perception of musicians sleeping late ’til 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon doesn’t really hold true any more, especially for people like me who have to be super industrious. Plus, I just like getting up early. As long as you’re making things — and I like to make things, to practice and write things and make records — by noon, you’ve almost put in a whole day. It’s a good energetic time, my prime time. That’s when everything’s very quiet.”

Indeed, he is industrious. He claims that between the year 2000 and the start of the pandemic, he played approximately 2,000 shows, some of them in Europe but mostly in the US.

“Making records is all I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “However, it’s very rare that you meet someone that’s familiar with all of it. I meet very few people that are familiar with the entire oeuvre. I’ll meet people who are familiar with the weird stuff, but don’t really know the mainstream stuff. It’s funny how that works. I have kind of an unusual resumé or discography — whatever you want to call it. It’s a weird amalgamation of stuff.”

The reason, he says, goes back to the fact that he simply loves music. 

“I’ve had a chance in my life to work with some true masters of music, guys that are way beyond me, and they’ve always worked in various genres. And one of the things I’ve done is to analyze how they’ve looked at things. What I’ve discovered is that they’ve all loved music, even more than me in some cases. I make music that I really like to hear because I’m a real fan. I really like to listen. So the privilege of making music is that you can make music you really want to listen to, and you can experiment and change this or add that, or even add an inside joke that allows for a double meaning. I look at records as being movies. Sonically there’s a thing happening that fills up that space. It’s all about the way the frequencies are arranged.”

Not surprisingly then, his obsession naturally empowers his intuition, which in turn, assures an abundance of inspiration. 

“It’s not that I have to seek to be inspired,” Barnes maintains. “It’s that I have to seek not to be inspired. A lot of it can be traced back to when I was hit in the head as a child. I had a bad head injury and it changed the channel a little bit. So now, I have this funny idea of the way I want to see things. I’m not really sure what it is really, but I realized that there’s an eternal ethereal source of constant music and inspiration, images and beauty and humor, and all these things that are constantly going on in my mind. I think that the way I tap into it is to listen to a whole bunch of really great music, and that causes me to keep falling in love with music more and more and more. And you hang out with people who are a whole lot better at it than you are, you learn where this sound source is. Once you start listening to it, all you have to do is write it down. There’s not a whole lot of work in that respect. Once you figure out where it is, it’s just like turning on the faucet. Not all of it is perfect, so you have to figure out just what the hell you want to do with it. I work with poems. I don’t use complex forms harmonically to get my point across. I use real simple forms. If you figure out who you are — me, I’m sort of the untrained southerner kind of outsider — then it makes things a lot easier. And if you deviate from there, you have something to deviate from. I knew what was in the aesthetic, so I also figured out what was outside the aesthetic. You set your own parameters. I’m not saying I had the sense to do that, but that’s just sort of what happened.”

When it’s mentioned that he seems to be a legitimate pioneer of what’s often referred to as “progressive bluegrass,” he embraces the notion enthusiastically.

“Progressive bluegrass? Yeah, that’s right. I try to keep it going. Kind like what John Hartford did on his album Steam Powered Aereo Plane. That record sort of pushed things out there. You can still hear the tradition in it because the homework had been done. You have to learn what you’re screwing with or it won’t come out right. Hartford knew everything there was to know about everyone who ever played bluegrass, and probably went to see them all a hundred times besides having all their records. He knew everything about traditional music, and so he was really able to push it out because he had studied it. He was a contemporary person and he wasn’t pretending it was 1948. When you look back at his stuff, you see the totality. He was totally up to date and totally in the now. He wasn’t trying to pretend it was some other time. He was like Miles Davis because he had so many different periods. He was a super hip guy, but he had obviously done his homework. I found that aesthetic really appealing.”

As for the future, Barnes naturally remains intent on making more music. He’s releasing a free song on his mailing list every month, with the eventual goal to combine them into a new album. In addition, he’s working with Dave Matthews on an upcoming cartoon soundtrack, and will soon embark on recording a new record with David Grisman under their aegis as the Dawg Trio.”

Apparently, he isn’t aware of that old showbiz axiom that maintains that one has to always keep the audience wanting more.

“I haven’t figured that one out yet,” he admits. “I just love making music. When nothing’s there and then suddenly something appears. I find that fascinating.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.