Mike Barnett on bouncing back from brain injury, and a new album

Sometimes the challenge to share music involves more than common up with the right words and melodies. For Mike Barnett, the obstacles were such that they very nearly ended his career, a career that includes a Grammy nod for his highly acclaimed effort Portraits in Fiddles and praise from both the press and any number of his contemporaries. With the pending release of a new album of duets, aptly titled + 1, Barnett suffered a brain aneurysm, leading him to undergo two successful surgeries and an intensive round of rehabilitation that’s occupied most of his time since. In addition, he and his wife, violinist Annalise Ohse, started a GoFundMe page to help pay the costs for the therapy. 

“I attribute all of my progress to the GoFundMe and to everyone who has supported me,” Barnett reflects, sharing his thoughts from Chicago where he’s undergoing his latest round of rehab. “Without all the generous donations from friends, family, fans, and strangers, I wouldn’t have had access to all of this quality and crucial therapy. I would’ve had to go to a nursing home to recover, and would probably still be in a wheelchair. It breaks me when I think about what could have been.”

Happily, he is improving and the album is finally slated for release on March 19. Given the list of participants — Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, and Ricky Skaggs, among them — it ought to represent a major plateau for the Berklee School of Music grad, one of many that have dotted his career. 

Indeed, his success became evident early on when he was invited to join Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. “I didn’t sleep the entire night before my audition,” Barnett recalls. “We were performing at the Ram’s Head in Maryland, and I was shadowing Andy Leftwich. I was really nervous; it was intimidating taking solos next to Andy who had been in the band for 14 years and is an incredible fiddle player. Some of the tempos were so fast. I remember Andy played on top of the beat, really driving the band forward. I learned a lot about the role of the fiddle in a bluegrass band during that audition. I became much more fluent in traditional bluegrass during that time. It took me a while to feel comfortable with the band, but over time I started to let go. I challenged myself to improvise more and more. Playing with Ricky made me a stronger, more confident player.”

Not surprisingly then, the new album covers a lot of ground, from Celtic hymns and jazz-inflected melodies to ballads and, naturally, plenty of bluegrass. In a way, it takes Barnett back to his roots, having had his start playing clubs and small venues in New York City prior to making a permanent move to Nashville, the place where he not only found further opportunities, but also a musical community where his relationships would soon flourish. He says that the musicians who contributed to the new album are all close friends and colleagues he’s known through various phases in his life.

The album also reflects his seminal influences, including Darol Anger’s album Diary of a Fiddler, and the collaboration between Christian Howes and Billy Contreras and the shared effort undertaken by Tim O’Brien and Darell Scott.

“I recorded many of these tracks during the time I recorded Portraits in Fiddles,” Barnett says. “I’ve always been drawn to duo playing and knew that eventually, there would be a time to release a collection. With the exception of Dexterity, Born to Be With You, and the Little Sisters medley, every track is original music that I wrote myself or collaborated on with a friend. Some of the tunes, like Higher Ground, I had had in my pocket for a while. I wrote that one in 2014, in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, on a broken tenor guitar with only two strings. Other tunes, like the instrumental The Breath and the Bow, that I recorded with saxophonist Eddie Barbash, I wrote specifically for this project. It was a balance. Sometimes the tune inspired who I wanted to collaborate with. And sometimes my collaborator inspired the tune.”

He adds that the pairings had a practical purpose that went beyond the musical dynamic. “Duo playing is a lot more work for both parties, but it’s also a lot more lucrative if you’re playing for tips!,” he remarks when asked about any change in tack. “You’ve got to figure out how to whittle a tune down for two players while preserving the spirit. I personally love duo playing because I love the one on one collaboration and interaction.”

Despite his recent struggles, Barnett remains remarkably upbeat overall and still eager to share his affection for making music. “Bluegrass is where I started, and it has been an incredible gateway to so many styles of music. Bluegrass teaches you harmonic structure and function, but it also gives a unique space for real virtuosic development. It can be used as a stepping stone to jazz and any other genre that might interest you. I think that’s why there is so much ‘nugrass’ around these days….If the music comes from the heart, it’ll probably stand the test of time.”

Speaking of which, Barnett’s focus, for at least the time being, is to get through therapy and get to the point where he can resume playing and performing. Happily, he’s optimistic.

“In the brain injury arena, I’m doing very well,” he muses. “But I’ve still got so much recovering to do if I’m going to play fiddle again. Therapy feels slow. I have good days and bad days. The Aphasia is really frustrating, but people tell me I’m improving. My leg has really gotten stronger this past month. I can walk on the treadmill now for 40 plus minutes, and my speed is noticeably increasing. My shoulder muscles have really strengthened, but my arm and hand are proving to be more stubborn. With a lot of effort, I can extend my elbow out. Sometimes, my fingers surprise me and extend out too! This is the most recent milestone. Considering that I almost died in the ER seven months ago, I’ve made really good progress.”

Needless to say, we all wish him well.

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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.