Puremusic interview with Danny Barnes

In the summer of 2003 we reviewed a great record from the Terminus label called Dirt on the Angel by Danny Barnes. We were interviewing another Terminus artist that month, Tywanna Jo Baskette. We'd been aware of our interviewee for some time, but were quite taken aback by the sheer magnitude of Barnes, of whom we were woefully ignorant.

Now a couple of years later, we were happy to see Get Myself Together appear in the mailbox, the latest Barnes epistle. It's along the same trajectory that Dirt was traveling, and demonstrates more of the virtuosic playing and singular writing of this Texan transplanted to the musically fertile Northwest sector, an island community called Port Townsend, WA. It's here that Danny loosely joined a family of musicians that includes the likes of Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb, Wayne Horvitz, Tucker Martine, Laura Veirs, and many others.

As we looked a little further into the story of Barnes, what we found was what many that preceded us knew quite well, that he was the co founder and front man of the iconoclastic Bad Livers, a band that toured and thrived eccentrically for over a decade, bluegrass and old-timey to a point, but with obvious and visceral punk underpinnings. Barnes and bassist Mark Rubin were joined at the hip in this duality, to state it simply. The Bad Livers were a product of many influences, the aforementioned are just the most evident. Between them, there are and were many other avid musical interests that included klezmer and blues, Country, rock, jazz, classical and various ethnic musics.

There was a lot of jamming going on in the Bad Livers shows, in the context of incredible songs. The trio (that also included fiddler/accordionist Ralph White, who left the band in 1996) was much more likely to be seen opening up punk shows than folk and bluegrass festivals. (In fact, their first and landmark record, Delusions of Banjer, was produced by Paul Leary of The Butthole Surfers.) Barnes has said that they figured out they had about 11,000 fans, and that's usually how many records they'd sell on their most popular discs. Divided by the number of major markets at the time (175) you could usually figure there'd be an average of 136 people at the club, sometimes half or twice that many on given nights... There was definitely a method to their undeniable madness. There are, thankfully, many very important and satisfying songs of the Bad Livers on iTunes, and we strongly endorse the idea of checking them out; we certainly bought a number ourselves.

Since the Livers hung it up in 2000, Barnes has been busy. Any attempt at listing his many activities would be selling him short, but it involves a lot of touring and recording with Bill Frisell (including a brilliant CD called The Willies), the highly acclaimed jazz outfit Mylab with Tucker Martine and Wayne Horvitz and a passle of heavies. Anyhow, along with a long list of live and session credits, he's lately become an in-demand sideman for people like Robert Earl Keen and Tim O'Brien. He is first and foremost known as a banjoist par excellence, but is a top shelf acoustic and electric guitarist, as one can tell from his latest effort, and (on electric) from very cool clips on his website with the Danny Barnes Collective.

I had to postpone the interview several times. Not only because of toxic busyness (has the age of specialization given way to that of chronic multitasking?) but because the longer I listened and learned about Mister Barnes, the more ungraspable he grew. At some point, you just throw in the towel, hang out and have a conversation. This was not over the phone, because he happened to be in town. So, at the same table at the back of Bongo Java where I once had a beautiful conversation with Darrell Scott, Danny Barnes and I sat and shot the breeze right through and beyond both sides of the tape. He is a down to earth but very high-minded musician of the first order, physically imposing but very soft spoken, a singularly impressive person. 
continue to interview