When a Danny Barnes album shows up in the mail, you have no idea what to expect. His creativity and musical adventures have kept him from being pigeonholed into any specific genre or style. So as you open his new disc, Stove Up, which is made up mostly of hard-driving traditional fiddle and banjo standards, you see Barnes with his mischievous, merry prankster style grin, as if he’s saying, “Gotcha!”
“After 45 years of practicing, this is the first acoustic bluegrass record I’ve ever made,” says Barnes. And what a bluegrass album it is! From the great traditionals Paddy On The Turnpike, John Hardy, and Bill Cheatum, to the Grandpa Jones classic Eight More Miles to Louisville, Barnes takes us on a musical journey through his life with the 5-string.
Any banjo player worth his salt has to pay homage to the man that started our obsession with the instrument. Barnes chose two of Earl Scruggs’ best: Flint Hill Special, where he forgoes mechanical tuners and plays the iconic melody notes manually, and the underappreciated Fireball, which is the perfect blend of Earl’s right-hand timing with Barnes’ subtle but unique melodic runs and licks. Even the most ardent traditionalists will appreciate how Barnes adds his own style without removing the essence of Earl’s musical stamp.
An honest testament to Barnes’ songwriting is the fact that his three original tunes, Isotope 709, a high-speed Charlie, and his most well-known song Get It While You Can hold their own on an album with such bluegrass classics.
Spoiler alert here: If you listen to the album without reading the liner notes, there’s a particular moment, a particular song, that crashes two worlds together, and that’s the Don Stover classic Rockwood Deer Chase. It’s in this moment (and I’m sorry for ruining the potential of self-discovery here, but I have to write about it for an honest review) that you realize Barnes’ playing is a direct, and I mean direct, descendant from the late great Don Stover. Don’s playing was such a unique mixture of technical proficiency, quirky melodic exploration, and probably the best example of “loose but tight” right-hand timing we’ve ever seen. And is there any better way to describe the playing of Danny Barnes? Upon further exploration in the liner notes, Barnes writes about his love and dedication to Mr. Stover. “That record, Things In Life, was a life changer for me because Mr. Stover wrote songs, fronted a band and could play lots of different —ultimately his style of course. I don’t think you can find a better song in the bluegrass cannon than Things In Life.” He also writes, “Mark Rubin, my partner in the band, and I used to joke that we called ourselves Bad Livers because it had the same amount of syllables as Don Stover, we were both nuts about him.”
If you’re a banjo player/nerd, then let this be your one take-away: Purchase the physical copy of Stove Up so you can read Barnes’ talk about Don Stover. It’s worth every penny.
The album also features an impressive collection of players and production cast who all exist easily within the strict traditionalist world, as well as in today’s burgeoning progressive scene. Producer Nick Forster (E-Town and Hot Rize) finds a rare sweet spot with the musicians to create an overall sound—live and loose without being overproduced—that was common decades ago, but is rare in today’s recording world of digital perfection. There’s a certain spirit that gets taken out of recorded music as it’s run through all the engineering toys available in today’s studios. Listening through the songs you hear musicians reacting to each other, not to a click track. As Tim O’Brien says of the album, “You can almost hear the musicians smile.”
The album features Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on bass, who share an undeniable musical connection from their decades in Del’s band. When you have two musicians that know each other this deeply it becomes easy for Barnes and Chris Henry (mandolin) to take musical chances. Each musician plays more freely knowing you have a group that has your back, and will instinctively know where you are and what you need.
If Stove Up had been released in the early ’70s it would easily be in the conversation of the most influential banjo albums that sparked the newgrass/progressive movement: John Hartford, Bill Keith, McEuen with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick with Country Cooking, Courtney Johnson with Newgrass Revival, and of course the great Don Stover. Stove Up sits squarely in this pantheon of players that changed the course of bluegrass and opened our idea of what’s possible on the banjo. Danny Barnes has been practicing for 45 years to make his first bluegrass album. If you love the banjo, this album is a must-have.