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 & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers … like an Old Testament litany of the major prophets.
Growing up in Texas, you have a lot of different influences. For example, T-Bone Walker — it’s kinda blues, but it’s kinda swing … it’s got a little bit of jazz in there, Big Band stuff. Or like Western swing. And I don’t know why that is, but a lot of artists who come out of Texas tend to blend things together. I think that would be an interesting doctoral thesis.
I grew up admiring John Hartford, who had his own way of playing, too. He had this whole other vocabulary, even though he was friends with all those guys and knew all that music. So I ended up combining punk rock and Jamaican stuff that was coming out in the ’70s.
I was a kid with two older brothers, and when I got interested in jazz, they handed me Ornette Coleman. I had no idea of standards and all that stuff. I thought jazz was Ornette. You end up making these weird juxtapositions. So I had to combine everything I found interesting about electric guitar playing, like Wilko Johnson from Dr. Feelgood and Jamaican rhythm guitar players and Mexican music, which is very diatonic, like banjo music, but it changes chords in a different way. I ended up making my own little vocabulary.
So “that way” would be like if you were in the lineage, like in the lineage of David. And I was like the son of Ishmael.
How else did being born and raised in Texas influence your musical direction? You grew up in Belton.
I lived there until 1980, graduated from high school and then moved to Austin. It was about an hour away. You had to work so damn hard to get hold of anything. In Belton, it was really hard to get records. You’d read about a record in a magazine and order it, and it would take weeks to get there. And it would be really hot in those mail trucks, so they’d be kind of melted and warped when you got ’em. Or they’d send the wrong damn record, and you’d have to send it back and wait six more weeks. Part of the reason that stuff was so valuable to me was because it was so hard to get.
And it was a challenging thing to go hear music — it took a lot of work. I wonder about that, because nowadays it’s so easy to consume everything. But back then it took a lot of dedication from very early on. And I lived in a farmer community, where everything was based on working on the farm and football. I wasn’t interested in either of them. All I wanted to do from the time I was 10 was practice music and buy music and go to shows and play in bands and make recordings. My brothers were into music, but as far as any encouragement from the community or the environment, that wasn’t happening. If you were interested in art, you were weird, and they didn’t like that. If you were into art, it was like you were gonna be a mime, or learn Sanskrit. When I took my banjo to school when I was 10 for show and tell, they just laughed at me. It was brutal.
I assume it was easier once you got to Austin.
I felt like I was living in Rome or something. I got a degree in audio production from UT and went to school in that big building where Austin City Limits was shot, and I got to learn about microphones and EQs. I ended up buying the same tape machine they had in there for the Bad Livers, and we made two or three records on that. I’ve got it in my studio now.
Let’s talk about the Bad Livers, because there are still people who know you best from the Livers and others who don’t know the band at all.
We were like a gang, me and Ralph [White] and Mark [Rubin]. We were all just so weird. When we walked into a place, we felt like we were brothers — we stuck up for each other. And we just sort of made our own audience, because we found that there were other people who listened to a lot of punk rock records but liked Johnny Cash. It wasn’t like every bar had a Cajun Night back then. So it wasn’t a trail that was blazed heretofore. We had to get out there and beat ’em over the head, one at a time.
But we were a real band with that band thing. We stuck with each other and believed in each other and believed in what we were doing. We weren’t drawing attention to ourselves; we were drawing attention to music. It was such a beautiful thing, and there are probably a lot of musicians who don’t get to experience something like that.
And then you moved away to Washington state. Why?
One thing about Texas that was hard for me was this whole bar band world. I put myself through college playing in bars. And I really wanted to develop musically. I was having a lot of ideas about electronic music and avant-garde noise music and John Cage and Albert Ayler and different kinds of sounds I wanted to learn about. I’m sure that world was there, but I just wasn’t connected to it.
And I’d always liked the Northwest, because at the time there were about four stations that were just playing the shit out of the Bad Livers. I’d always liked coming to Seattle and liked the climate — the ocean and the green and the rain. It’s not too hot, not too cold, just a beautiful place. I walked on the beach at sunrise today, and I do that every day when I’m at home.
Then when I got up here, I got to meet the guy I think of as the maestro of music: Bill Frisell. I started interfacing with Bill and some of his compatriots — Wayne Horvitz, Robin Holcomb, Eyvind Kang — and they were four people up here in the Northwest who were pretty advanced compositionally.
Once I started working with them I was learning about possibilities of music beyond selling beer and getting people to jump around. It turned out to be a real fortuitous move for me. Within two years of moving up here I ended up playing European jazz festivals with Bill, shows with Max Roach and Carla Bley and David Holland and Joe Lovano. I was learning about music in a really big way.
That’s what I wanted to bring into my music. I’m interested in the banjo, but I feel like my voice or my raison d’etre or however you say that is combining American folk forms with contemporary music. By contemporary, I don’t mean pop music but composed music — avant-garde music, 12-tone stuff, noise and electronic and free stuff. I wanted to combine that contemporary art trip with the banjo.
So how does your whole concept of “barnyard electronics” play into this?
It’s a perfect expression of that. I’ve always been interested in tape recorders and effects, and I’ve studied audio and produced and engineered Bad Livers records.
What I’m trying to do with this “barnyard electronics” thing is, like, there’s this weird concept of the small-town intellectual, the guy who gets all excited about all the wrong stuff because he doesn’t have anybody to talk with. When I was growing up, there’d be these redneck guys, but they’d kind of have this existential philosophy. So I’ve always been fascinated with that kind of juxtaposition. I try to make it like I’m this guy out in the field with the banjo, but somehow he really got into early electronic music, because they both kind of came out of the 1920s.
When I saw John Hartford play solo back in ’75 or ’76, he was well versed in banjo and fiddle music, but he was also talking about Bob Marley. Later he became my friend, and I got into his van with him and he had a Butthole Surfers tape. And that sort of juxtaposition has driven all of my work, particularly over the last 20 or 30 years.
It’s like I’m using the banjo and playing these ancient songs, but I’m also using this real cutting-edge software to process it. It all involves looping and pitch-shifting and making effects affect other effects.
Another thing that got me going is that I was at the home of John Paul Jones — the Led Zeppelin bassist and producer who’s become a friend of mine — and he was showing me the really early, cool Moog synthesizers. And in the far left corner they have this oscillator, which is the raw tone of the synth. It sounds like a doorbell or a car horn. I remember wondering what would happen if you used the banjo as the raw tone. So I’ve started using the banjo as the raw tone in a series of electronic processes. You can hear all this stuff on my Bandcamp page or on YouTube.
Nobody would confuse this with punk rock, but it still seems to have that same sort of punk DIY aesthetic to it — no rules, no boundaries.
Absolutely. I remember when I was living in Austin and this punk-rock buddy of mine had a lawn business. When he was out mowing lawns, he was basically running behind the lawnmower, busting his ass. He said, “Man, I kick ass at everything I do.” I always associated it with punk rock. To me, it also harkens back to the bricolage technique — you use the materials at hand, take into consideration the format you’ve got, and you start working.
You’ve got a new record out that’s an old record—what’s that all about?
My last pure acoustic record was called Get Myself Together, and it came out 10 years ago on a label a friend of mine had. The company ended up going down, and you can’t get the CD. I’ve seen one on eBay for $45. So Jenni Finlay [of the Eight 30 label] came to me and thought it would be a good idea for me to re-record it. It had some really good songs, plus my singing and playing are better now.
And what’s next?
I want to make like a total, over-the-plate banjo record. Something I’ve never done; I’ve always used it as fodder to make other things. Probably end up going to Nashville and using the A-team guys, and doing none of my own songs, just old banjo songs. I’m really excited about that, and I’ve been practicing like crazy.
I also have this suite of 12-tone music I’m working on for just banjo and tuba. The two most maligned and joked-about instruments in the history of the universe, playing some relatively advanced harmony and rhythms together. I played tuba pretty seriously in high school, and I’ve got two movements of that done already. This winter will be a good time to finish that. Then a lot of touring for this record that just came out. Just forward in all directions, I guess. [Laughs]
I have a lot more ideas than I have time to do ’em in. I have ideas for past when I’m dead.