Danny Barnes

Danny Barnes
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With Get Myself Together, (Terminus Records), Danny Barnes - America's irreplaceable alchemist of acoustic razzle-dazzle, open-borders ecumenism, and downhome chutzpah - gets back to basics. Or so a record of lively blues and old-timey-tinged songs, played on banjo and guitar with occasional fiddle and bass guitar accompaniment (Brittany Haas and Garey Shelton, respectively), would seem. Coming on the heels of the widescreen epic Dirt on the Angel and a magic-barrel profusion of experimental-edge side projects, Get Myself Together sounds at first like a return to the earlier, leaner aesthetic of Bad Livers, the Texas avant-hillbilly visionaries whom Barnes steered through seven records from 1994 to 2000. But his fans know to listen more than once. When Barnes is driving, there are no entirely straight routes, forward or back, and nothing slips off the back of the truck. "One of the themes that interested me in the writing of this project was the law of cause and effect," Danny says. "How people basically cause their own misery and happiness. It's always amazed me how people, myself included, volunteer for misery." That law dogs the OxyContin addict in "Get Me Out of Jail" who shows up for work drunk, vomits on himself, breaks into his girlfriend's house, and lands in the clink. He reappears eight songs on, in "Cat to the Rat" (from Cervantes' determinist epigram, "the cat to the rat, the rat to the rope, the rope to the gallows"), having been sprung by his girl but returned to confinement by twelve of his peers, much poorer and no wiser. This recurrence and other slenderer threads of continuity bear out Danny's assertion that Get Myself Together "is set up like a modern film. various stories get woven into the fabric in disjointed ways, little lyrical themes that pop in and out across the selections, much like classical music." Classical, Cervantes, Robert Johnson, Earl Scruggs, how many "popular artists" are equipped to sense and exploit these connections? Barnes's remarks on the surface simplicity of his newest music's sources are revealing. "From a minimalist perspective, you can tell Willie Johnson and Charley Patton had a LOT of music going on in their heads, and are alluding to various orchestrations as they play." Likewise, Get Myself Together alludes as it minimalizes. Listen to the fantastic National guitar workout on the very lascivious "Cut A Rug," the four-part singing on Barnes's gentle flatpick treatment of Willie Johnson's "Let Your Light Shine On Me," the jaunty title track propelled by tuba and Harry Reser-esque banjo, and 10 other stark jewels, all recorded in a small room (by Garey Shelton) and unfussily presented. This music breathes between the notes as it maintains an amiable give-and-take with dead masters - the student holding his own, neither showboating nor allowing the exchange to flag. Born in Temple, Texas in 1961 and raised in nearby Belton, 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). Barnes has also toured with Frisell, and will be a member of his touring band this July for the month. 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.
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