Born in Temple, Texas in 1961 and raised in nearby Belton, Danny Barnes
was an oddball to his small-town peers but blessed in the flesh-and-blood lottery. Grandma was of Tennessee heritage and her style of talk warmed young Danny to the records of Flatt and Scruggs; Dad was a country music fan and banjo enthusiast; middle brother infected Danny with his love for Delta blues; oldest brother was into punk rock and built a primitive studio out back of his house. Almost everybody played a little. Danny's openness to varied vibrations - Fred McDowell, Ralph Stanley, Sex Pistols, Lee Perry - was thus nurtured; and his natural skill with audio gadgetry was developed first at his brother's studio and later at the University of Texas, where he studied audio production and was graduated in 1985.
Over the wet-cement years, one musical influence proved to be primus inter pares. In the 1970s, there were acoustic traditionalists - and there was John Hartford. Seeing the iconoclastic musician play gave the teenaged Barnes's brain a jolt and cinched his future. "He was a total modern musician - a pop musician," Barnes observes, "but he had also done tons of homework in traditional music." The younger banjoist would carry forward Hartford's anything-with-strings dexterity, his capacity to absorb and personalize musical stimuli, his loopy good humor, and his dedication to dead things.
In 1990 Danny formed Bad Livers with bassist Mark Rubin and violinist Ralph White. The band debuted with "Delusions of Banjer" (1994, Quarterstick/Touch and Go Records), produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. Bad Livers were soon pegged as hip purveyors of ramped-up proto-Americana, though in fact they played too well and roamed too freely to swim with any school. After a trio of critically lauded records for the Sugar Hill label - Hogs on the Highway, Industry and Thrift, and the astonishing electronica-hillbilly mash-up Blood and Mood, which the world is only now catching up with - Danny shuttered the group. The composer-instrumentalist had already left Austin, in 1997, for the tiny maritime community of Port Townsend, Washington, a half-mile from Puget Sound.
As a licensed pilot, skateboarder, motorcyclist, flyfisher, unicyclist, trap shooter, and disc golfer, Danny jibed with the no-fences culture of the Pacific Northwest. (His appetite for adventure is no bogus songwriter bluster - when he says "I've never been bored even for one second my entire life," you sense at once the accuracy of the self-appraisal as well as a personal twinge of slacker guilt.) He was not long in locating opportunities and companions in the neighborhood. In 2000, with bassist Keith Lowe and fiddler Jon Parry, he formed Thee Old Codgers. Their record, Things I Done Wrong, had its feet in hard times and its head in the progressive ether, and the high-caliber team playing on the touring that followed seemed to spur Barnes's stamina and at-hand vocabulary.
That record was produced by modern music composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz, whom Danny had met through guitarist Bill Frisell. Frisell, who also lived in the Seattle area, had phoned Barnes out of the blue after catching a club set of Danny's. The jazz giant was feeling a path into traditional American music, and asked Barnes for lessons. The banjoist was initially skeptical. "Then he sends me all these badass records with killer musicians, at the best studios," he recalls. "It really freaked me out - I had no idea about his work." Today the two are frequent collaborators; together with Keith Lowe they coaxed untapped harmonic possibilities from mountain-music forms in "The Willies" (Nonesuch, 2002).
With modern masters like these in the search party, Danny's sharp-edged exploratory side was soaring. Three solo self-releases (Minor Dings, Live at McCabe's, and Oft-Mended Raiment) and a duo with songwriter Pete Krebs, Duet for Clarinet and Goat, were followed by Dirt on the Angel (Terminus, 2003), which featured Frisell, old-time master Dirk Powell, Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell, and Psychograss violinist Darol Anger, among others, and won acclaim as Danny's richest work yet. In 2004 he contributed to Mylab, a groove-centric Wayne Horvitz project (and one of the New Yorker's top ten jazz releases of the year); joined Frisell, Robin Holcomb, and members of the Seattle Symphony and Northwest Chamber Group in "Joe Hill," a Horvitz-composed piece exploring the life and legacy of the IWW organizer; and toured and recorded with Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen.
Not yet mentioned are Danny's reading, with punk artist Jim Carroll, of William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" on audiocassette, his original music for Richard Linklater's film "The Newton Boys," his performance with Frisell on German director Ed Herzog's film "Lively Up Yourself," and a dozen other farflung credits. It is certain that he will keep growing, and we who admire him optimistically trust his audience will as well. The time-transcendent implicative power (rhythmic, poetic) and unity of his latest collection remind us of things that art does by necessity - give play to the impulses of a diligent, self-censoring sensibility - and of the pure delight that music, born of pure delight, can create. - Robbie Fulks (Fulks is a critically acclaimed recording artist , his latest CD "Georgia Hard" is out now on Yep Rock Records. Robbie is also a contributing writer for Journal of Country Music, Playboy, GQ and has two articles in DaCapo Press's "Best Music Writing" yearly anthologies 2001 and 2004)
"The banjo stirs a feeling of timelessness with its old time/bluegrass/folk associations. Danny Barnes builds with these base molecules of the instrument's heritage, sculpting a sound with one foot in contemporary technological landscapes, another in deep running traditions, and arms waving free in outer space. Found audio samples merge and crash as the instrument's high picking peaks and valleys of bassy depths loop in a journey through the American heart of darkness and back towards the light. Add the free form jazz of Ornette Coleman to the legacy of Dock Boggs, remix it with DJ Shadow, and view it through a DIY punk aesthetic and you have some idea of Folktronics. Live, on studio or homemade records, and through the countless concert recordings that circulate in the taper scene as word-of-mouth gems, Barnes is a sonic pioneer, hacking through the underbrush with his musical weapons of choice, banjo as compass." - Sarah Hagerman, jambase.com
"Music needs to change...grow and evolve...be constantly inspired through the work of the people that create it. Thank God we have a man like Danny Barnes leading the way...a true hero and resounding voice to those who are smart enough to listen." - Jeff Austin, Yonder Mountain String Band
"like all great neo-traditionalists he can string together snippets of traditional tunes and lyrical fragments from dozens of folk and country songs, and come up with something that's instantly recognizable and yet brand new." - Harp
"yet nothing he plays smacks of novelty, gimmick or willful eclecticismSQL_INJECTION_ATTEMPTion provides the measure of a voracious musical appetite and a large soul." - No Depression
"the label 'true original' gets bandied about too often these days, but danny barnes deserves it." - Paste
"barnes' original numbers sound as wonderfully aged as standards" - Time Out New York
"barnes' countrified tack belies an intellect as wryly cutting as randy newman, fingers as soulfully nimble as ry cooder's and a sense of history whose fervency rivals t bone burnett's- did we forget to mention charles ives and r. crumb? -yet the sum of his sound is distinctively his own." - amazon.com
"an eclecticism that's nothing less than endearing and simultaneously visionary." - all music guide
"this is the way forward for bluegrass." - Mojo
"danny barnes is the coolest songwriter i have heard in ages. i can't stop listening to his records and have played them over and over.... - Chuck Leavell (stones, allman brothers)
"he's an original. he's the real deal." - Bill Frisell
Danny Barnes performs 8-11PM. Cover is $8 at the door.