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Danny Barnes

A Conversation with Danny Barnes (continued)

PM: So the northwest has been good to you.

DB: I didn't really know what I was getting into when my wife and I moved. I've been there almost nine years. At first glance it looked like it was going to be a backward move, because Austin is kind of considered to be--you know, after Nashville and New York--the place.

PM: The music town.

DB: Yeah.

PM: And especially for a Texan to move to Washington. That's really strange.

DB: Yeah, because it's a different bio-region. If you look in bird books, that side of the cascades is not only different geographically, but it's a different bio-region for the plants and the birds and everything, it's a different world.

PM: But things started clicking right away?

DB: Yeah, it ended up being really good. There's just a lot of cool, interesting music happening in Seattle. I think one of the reasons is because they have a really good symphony.

PM: Huh.

DB: If you have a really good symphony, then you have all those people that are giving lessons and studying music, and you have all their students. It's a catalyst for a lot of music, I think, having a good symphony.

PM: And I think also if you've got a vibrant youth culture that will support all kinds of--

DB: Yeah. They've got a super good, really odd punk rock scene, and a super good weird music scene and modern music scene and stuff like that. And plus, people in the northwest, at least the artist people that I interact with, they tend to be kind of interesting people. They read a lot, and they're kind of reserved, and they think a lot about things.

PM: And so if you're doing something interesting, you're liable to find an audience.

DB: Yeah.  And also, be able to learn about whatever it is that turns you on. A lot of really advanced people live there, intellectually advanced. For instance, I moved there, and a couple of guys that I started working with are Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell and Robin Holcomb, who are all pretty evolved people.

PM: Wow.

PM: We haven't covered Robin Holcomb yet in the zine. Are she and Wayne Horvitz a couple?

DB: Yeah, they're married, and have two kids. They have a real nice older home there in Seattle and stuff. Right now she's doing a series of duets and solos with Wayne. She's pretty amazing.

PM: So you found an audience in the northwest right away, did you not, for what you were doing?

DB: Well, when the Bad Livers were around, that was one of our best markets.

PM: Ah.

DB: When I looked at my radio sheet from when I get paid for radio play, it tells you who's spinning the record. And there were four stations there that were playing my music. That was one of our best markets, for overall sales, and for concerts that was one of the best areas for our band.

PM: Oh, so your move was well-founded, in all those regards.

DB: Yeah. I figured it would be pretty cool for that reason.

PM: Pretty pragmatic for an outside banjo player.

DB: You know how when things are good, sometimes they're good in ways that you didn't anticipate. And you end up getting a lot of residual benefits out of it, just in terms of being able to interact with musicians who are that next level up, in terms of their compositional and instrumental abilities—

PM: Yeah, because you sure enough stepped into the next rung right away with that crowd.

DB: That's exactly right. And where I was, there were musicians like that. In a sense, even though Austin is more noted for roots music and people who are more blues based, country based, while there's certainly a lot of good music in that world, just in terms of, say, modern harmony and rhythm and the like, it was very fortuitous for me to be running with this new bunch of musicians.

PM: Are you very schooled in those regards? Are you a good reader?

DB: I'm learning that more and more. I'm constantly taking lessons and studying and working on my music.

PM: And what instrument do you use to study harmony and stuff. Do you use the banjo?

DB: My banjo. The banjo and the guitar. And the piano, to see things. And also just writing it out on paper, because some of the things I have to do I have to write for other instruments and arrange.

PM: Although you're a fantastic guitar player, the instrument I guess you're most often and most closely associated with is the banjo, right?

DB: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that. But the banjo is really my medium. Like a visual artist, if you worked mainly in pastel, it's my medium in that way. Whatever it is I bring to the party, the lens that projects it on the wall is the banjo.

PM: And what an unusual lens it is.

DB: It's pretty weird, yeah.

PM: A more maligned instrument has never existed, really.

DB: When I was growing up, my mom and dad always played country records at home. My mother and dad were from a rural heritage. They always played Jimmie Rodgers records. Red Foley was my dad's favorite singer. He was from Alabama, and they were real in tune to the Grand Ole Opry, country music with a capital "C." My grandmother was actually born in East Tennessee, and then they migrated to central Texas in a covered wagon.

PM: Where in East Tennessee?

DB: I believe in the Sparta area. Because when they moved there, they called their new town Sparta, after that.

PM: I see.

DB: But they played these records when I was a young kid, when I was five, six, seven years old. People like Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe were not just musicians. My mother and dad...I sometimes use the word "worship," but those musicians were up on this really high pedestal, almost like biblical figures to me.

PM: Wow!

DB: Right? When they talked about Hank Williams, or when they talked about Red Foley or somebody like that, or Minnie Pearl or Webb Pierce, it was in that way. When I was ten, I went to see Grandpa Jones and String Bean on this little Opry tour. And I've got to say, both those guys are brilliant musicians. Grandpa Jones published all these songs. He was a great songwriter, and he was a good banjo player. And String Bean was a really good banjo player. Anyway, I saw these guys play, and I just thought, man, that would be the most blessed job you could have is being a banjo player and traveling around playing the banjo. So when I was ten years old, I figured that's what I wanted to do. And I had no idea about the sociological ramifications of any of that.

PM: [laughs]

DB: Or the economic implication of that, or the sociopolitical kind of baggage that that kind of thing brings on in your life. I just had no idea. And at that time, a switch flipped, and that's what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea what I was getting into.

PM: If it flips on the tuba, it flips on the tuba.

DB: Yeah.

PM: So, you had no idea of the many multifaceted ramifications of the decision to play the banjo.

DB: No, I had no idea. I just thought, that's got to be the best thing you could do for yourself and for other people is to travel around and play that. My first concert I saw after that was John Hartford. I saw him, and that sort of solidified that idea.

PM: I recently saw his son Jamie play "Gentle on My Mind" at the Americana Awards show at the Ryman. I was in pieces. I mean, it was just so amazing to hear that song again in that way, and think back to the Glen Campbell Show, where everybody gathered around the TV set, and him picking that song...damn, that was magical.

DB: That's when you really saw people that could play, on TV.  You really saw the actual musicians on TV.

PM: Roy Clark and Glen Campbell.

DB: The other day, I saw this thing on RFDTV, on satellite TV at home. They had one of those old Glen Campbell shows on TV. And it was like Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Glen Campbell, all on this show. And they're doing little skits and playing. I was thinking, I was the last generation of people who saw actual musicians on TV who really could play and write songs that were really great. And seeing them on TV again shocked me. I thought, this is better than anything I've ever seen on TV. They got out guitars and played together and they had these crack bands, the best.

PM: Yeah. And it was like going into their living room, the way that they filmed it.

DB: Because they hung out and just kind of reacted to each other.

PM: Yeah. And like Louis Prima on TV, where so much of his stuff would be like just ad libbed on the spot. He'd just freak out on national TV.

DB: Or Oscar Lavant.

PM: Yeah, right. [laughs]

DB: Steve Allen used to say, "Goodnight, Oscar Lavant, wherever you are."

PM: [laughs]

DB: That's what he used to close the show with. My brother gave me a book written by Oscar Lavant, that was kind of a biographical book by him. And he was talking about being on those quiz shows. And I don't know if I read it on the jacket of that book or read it somewhere, but maybe Wayne Horvitz said this--it sounds like something Wayne would say--but somebody said, "That was back when people wanted to see smart people on TV," that was back then. [One quote that Oscar Lavant is know for: "There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."]


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