Texas-born, Seattle-based banjo pioneer Danny Barnes is coming off a good year. Being the sixth person to win the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass award—along with its $50,000 —brings the name Danny Barnes up from his dedicated and nearly-cultish underground following into the limelight of today’s top five-string pickers. As the world of banjos continuously features and celebrates players of speed, dexterity, precision, and creativity through complex runs and licks, the voting board, which is drawn from the who’s who of banjo players, voted to recognize a deeper sense of the instrument. “Danny is a real innovator,” says Steve Martin, “and we want to make sure innovation gets honored over the course of the prize. He plays three-finger, and he’s also not afraid to strum like an old banjo. You rarely see that, someone using banjo in all its capacities.”
Coupled with his newest release, Got Myself Together (10 years later), 2016 could be the year Danny Barnes becomes a much more recognizable name throughout the Americana and bluegrass worlds. Barnes decided to re-record his 2005 album Got Myself Together, an interesting choice with album sales at all-time lows and the time and resources it takes to record and release a full project. Industry insiders would probably advise against this move, but it only takes being in the presence of Danny Barnes for a few minutes to realize that he does not care what you or anyone else thinks about his art. Welcome to the world of Danny Barnes
Got Myself Together (10 years later) is a unique musical experience that allows the listener to experience how songs evolve—or better yet, devolve—through years of live performance. “The original context for these songs was as though I had made a movie and everything was all committed to celluloid,” says Barnes. “However, with music you tend to shape things as you play them live. The routine: You write something, you record it, then you go play it for ten years on the road. So, in returning to the music, I had a different perspective. It’s more like a dramatic work in that the company that performs it and the venue it’s performed in necessarily changes the meaning.”
For many artists, the growth of a song through a decade would include layers of harmonies, rhythms, and additional parts. But again, and I can’t stress this enough, Barnes defies almost everything we believe to be true about creating art to make a living. This collection of songs, which was already bare-bones raw in the 2005 edition, has been distilled down to the stark essence, as if ringing the last drop of juice from a fruit that everyone else believes to be dry. You almost have to look back to the depression era blues artists to find songs so raw, pure, and genuine.
Big Girl Blues, a song accompanied in the 2005 version by a bass string heavy acoustic guitar with swelling telecaster undertones, is now broken down to solo voice and a solo banjo with low guttural harmonics created by using fingers in place of banjo picks—one of the signature tones that make up Barnes’ unique style.
Like his banjo playing, Barnes’ lyrical style is honest and open. This album shows a man yearning for the simplicities of the past trying to reconcile the absurdities of both middle-age and modern-day life in small town USA. In Wasted Mind, Barnes gives witness to the new American realities that are so easily ignored.
“On a first name basis at the Police station
Where you spend a lot of lonely nights
Standin’ in the line up lights
“Ma’am, are you sure that’s him?”
They got books at school
But that ain’t cool
They got paintings at the art museum
You ain’t never gonna see ’em
Because they don’t serve light beer
Smell like turpentine
You’ll be doin’ time
With no idea why”
Not since John Hartford has someone allowed the banjo to become such a natural expression of their personality. While many players use the banjo to show what they can do, Danny Barnes uses it to show who he is—something so rare that we have to look back decades for comparisons.
Many fans of Barnes will know that his never-ending creative mind has led him into the experimental avant-garde realm, playing what he calls “barnyard electronics.” You will find the slightest taste of that on the bonus track I’m Convicted, a remix from his days with the band Bad Livers. But Got Myself Together (10 years later) is the playful and rebellious old-time-music-lover Danny Barnes that we all know from those first Bad Livers albums.
If you’re a long-time fan of the Bad Livers then you are part of a small group of people that yearn for the comforts of tradition but relish the excitement of original experimentation. Those diametric qualities seem normal in today’s mishmash of musical genres, but in the early ’90s, when the Bad Livers came on the scene, it was artistic rebellion with Danny Barnes leading the way with a banjo in one hand and a freak flag in another. Welcome to the world of Danny Barnes!