Danny Barnes hasn’t changed a bit, even though he’s now 50K richer and a bit better known. The September announcement that he was named the sixth recipient of the annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass surprised some, including Barnes, but he’s taken it in stride. Like the comedian who established and has endowed the award, Barnes approaches his banjo music very seriously, but his good humor permeates his very existence.
Texas born and bred, Barnes earned high regard in Austin as the frontman for the punk-bluegrass-iconoclast trio the Bad Livers. Since moving to Washington a couple decades ago, he has extended his musical horizons considerably, working with the likes of jazz luminary Bill Frisell and jam-band maestro Dave Matthews, while continuing to hew to the DIY aesthetic that’s resulted in his own unique musical progression.
Many of his recent recordings and performances reflect his exploration of what he’s dubbed “barnyard electronics” — imagine a Brian Eno ambient dub of Hee Haw. But his most recent release is a re-recording of his last solo acoustic album, Got Myself Together (Ten Years Later) on the Texas label Eight 30. And then he plans to do something he’s never done before: record a new album of straight-ahead instrumental banjo standards. Maybe even spend some of that money on some top-flight Nashville studio musicianship. It’s the last thing you might expect from Barnes, which makes it perfect.
Is any of the award money left?
All of it. I haven’t spent any of it. I’ve done so much for so long with so little, I could do practically anything with nothing. You ever heard that? I think I came up with that. [Laughs]
If the money isn’t that important to you, and you’ve never seemed that interested in fame, what was the most significant thing to you about the award?
Growing up in Texas and being interested in banjos, you always felt a bit removed from the epicenter, where it was really going on. If you grew up in North Carolina, you could go see all those guys. I got really interested in banjo when I was 10, and I had to learn everything off of records. So I guess [with this award] I felt like I belonged with that community.
I’d had to develop my own way of playing, because I never felt like I could play the banjo in that way, which I suppose was an asset. But it felt good to be recognized by that group of people, the board that makes up that award, a lot of banjo players I’d been listening to since the Carter administration. [Laughs]
Explain how your way of playing differs from what you call “that way.”
There’s just so much to playing an instrument in terms of how you hold it, and how you’re built physically and the density of your fingers. Sometimes I think it even has to do with barometric pressure — music sounds different in different environments. And it’s like a language — when I say “that way,” it’s like bluegrass with a capital B. Like [Bill] Monroe, Flatt