Ronnie Barnes passes

One of the most talented and creative bluegrass musicians ever to emerge from eastern Virginia has left us. Ron Barnes, known to friends as Ronnie, died on June 30 at his home. He was 64 years of age.

Ronnie had suffered a massive stroke just a few years ago, which had robbed him of function on the right side of his body, putting an end to both his illustrious playing career, and his brilliant luthiery work which had brought him tremendous acclaim in the banjo and mandolin communities. He was found unresponsive at his home on Sunday morning, and could not be revived.

Even in his late teens, when I first met him, Barnes was a remarkably fluid banjo player, with an expansive knowledge of not only Earl Scruggs’ music, but also that of then current pickers like Sonny Osborne, Bobby Thompson, Jack Hicks, and Carl Jackson. Working in the 1970s with a regional group called Flatland Express based in the Tidewater area, Ronnie displayed wit and creativity in his playing years ahead of the trends that were to follow. That same group contained a young singer, David Ratcliff, that would go on to work with The Bluegrass Cardinals, and Harold Smith, who later performed with East Virginia all over the US.

Ronnie also built fine flathead banjos, and exquisite mandolins. He was a deft and natural craftsman, whose day job prior to retirement was as a model maker for NASA, building miniatures of the various items they would test in the wind tunnels at the Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA. This was decades before 3D printing or CNC machines, and he built each of these by hand.

But bluegrass was his true love, and he had planned out an early retirement that would allow him to play music and build instruments from his home in Yorktown. He had also developed a technique for creating swirly amber tuner buttons that looked almost exactly like the ones used on prewar Gibson banjos, and had quite a trade in making them for Huber Banjos, and for customers who would send him an old button to copy, or a sample of binding to match.

And he would be at all the festivals in Virginia. He was a staple at the Amelia Bluegrass Festival and was always camped out at Galax. Ronnie also ventured further afield, showing up ready to pick at events as far away as Winfield and Bean Blossom.

But the stroke took all that away from him, and though Ronnie remained cheerful until the end, it was a huge loss, not only to him personally, but to the bluegrass community as well.

I never met anyone else who took such pure joy in the music, whether performing with fellow masters as he did later with East Virginia, or in sharing a lick with another banjo picker at a jam. Ronnie was a great friend to everyone who played bluegrass, and a warm hearted and delightfully funny person. He could talk for hours about the most arcane minutia of prewar banjos, or which might be the preferred thumb pick to use.

His is a terrific loss to a great many people. Ronnie was an inspiration and a wonder, and an easily likable man.

No information has yet been shared about funeral arrangements.

R.I.P., Ronnie Barnes.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.