Modern American string music, in the folk rather than classical tradition, has a number of hot spots around the country. The lure of commercial work brings a good many talented young practitioners to Nashville, where they often band together or find employment with successful artists. Others gravitate to northeastern cities like Boston or New York, where an appetite for alternative cultural offerings already exists.
Michael Barnett has a home in both areas, having been raised in Nashville as a boy, and later moving to Massachusetts to collaborate with some of Boston’s new innovators. While still in high school, he performed as a member of The Virginia Boys with Jesse McReynolds, solidifying his bluegrass fiddle chops, and learning the ways of the road from a venerated icon. In Boston, he worked in Northern Lights with mandolinist Joe Walsh, before touring with New York banjo whiz Tony Trischka in support of his Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular album. From there Barnett performed with the David Grisman Sextet, until becoming a founding member of The Deadly Gentlemen.
That quick career overview suggests what is made clear in Barnett’s recent Compass CD, One Song Romance: that he is a superb fiddler, and a terrific musician overall. The album showcases him on fiddle, as a vocalist, and a fine crafter of songs and tunes. All 12 tracks are his compositions, which are supported by some of the most celebrated singers and pickers in the genre. Tim O’Brien and Aoife O’Donovan provide lead and harmony vocals, with contributions in the ensemble from Noam Pikelny, David Grier, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert, Mike Bub, Rushad Eggleston, Sarah Jarosz, and members of the Deadly Gentlemen.
The music falls into a few general categories. There’s progressive bluegrass, of the sort you will have heard from acts like Punch Brothers, Deadly Gentlemen, Cadillac Sky, Crooked Still and others, like the opening track It’ll Be Alright. It’s a driving tune with a lovely melody, performed as a duet between Barnett and O’Donovan.
Others, like Change Her Mind, which features Tim O’Brien singing with Aoife, falls into that odd category of modern old time music. Perhaps there’s a descriptor that’s less absurd than combining those two terms, but I haven’t found it. The song is clearly influenced by traditional mountain styles, yet with a contemporary feel. The first verse and chorus are played in a sparse and stately vein, jumping to a full band arrangement with low-tuned banjo, and ending in a fiddle tune; a very powerful track.
>Little Darlin’ also exposes a strong old time feel, with O’Brien again on vocal and both bouzouki and mandolin, and an unalloyed treatment on a lovely song. This one sounds as if it might have been passed been passed down for generations.
Several are clearly fiddle tunes, but with the sort of harmonic and metric twists we’ve come to expect from young virtuosi like these. Michael has a particular skill for creating tunes like this. Hopped The Train To Hudson is a fast-paced example of this new-fangled style with exciting solos from all the participants. More Strangs is a new reel of Barnett’s with a more traditional sound, while New Barnes (performed with The Deadlies), is a very modern tune with a very catchy rhythm, especially in the surprising B part.
There are some that might be considered a sort of current folk music, like the title track, a lovely waltz sung as a duet between O’Donovan and Barnett. Aoife’s strengths are on display on this simple love song, delivering the lyrics in a whisper, but dripping with emotion.
A few numbers defy description, like Dig, Dig, Dig which must have been written with the charmingly mad cellist, Rushad Eggleston in mind. Rushad sings this one, and it sounds very much like one of his own, with a swingy feel and profoundly silly lyrics. Bottom Of The Barrel is a fascinating track, a sort of bluegrass bebop tune. The head is jazzy, followed by solos informed by The Bluegrass Boys as much as any of Charlie Parker’s ensembles. David Grier really shines on this one.
Barnett’s fiddle is brilliant throughout, as is Pikelny’s banjo and Eldridge’s guitar, and the mandolin of Dominick Leslie. But with all the technical firepower, it’s still the quality of the songs and tunes that makes One Song Romance such a triumph. Michael Barnett will be leaving a mark on our music for as long as he continues in it.