• Danny Barnes - Alt-Banjo Playing Man on Fire

    Danny Barnes

    Danny Barnes has pivoted. Or maybe he's made a career of pivoting. The banjo master, one of the great musicians of our time, has been unusually malleable in navigating a career in music: early on founding a ground breaking punk rock/bluegrass band (the Bad Livers), later on touring and recording with artists at the very pinnacle of jazz, bluegrass, and pop music (including Bill Frisell, Tim O’Brien, David Grisman and Dave Matthews), and all the while releasing a wildly diverse collection of solo records, ranging from straight bluegrass to rock to ambient electronica (a personal favorite of mine). Not to mention his essays, which are legendary, or his cartoons, which are as well. Or his deeply inspiring music lessons at Peghead Nation.

    And now that touring is off the table for the time being, taken away just as he was in the middle of a run of gigs celebrating the release of his latest record, Man on Fire (which is great!), Danny has shifted his focus a bit: he's at home on the Olympic Peninsula, balancing his daily practices with a recently ramped up and always well received cartoon/art business.

    That imaginative ever-flexible approach is evident in his playing: Danny is a deeply dedicated student of the banjo, and of previous masters' playing, and in his hands the banjo can pivot from sounding familiar to crackling with newness. Like his heroes, Danny has expanded the "banjo sound," creating space for innovative rhythmic accompaniment and rippling melodic solos that draw inspiration from well beyond the bounds of bluegrass, always balanced with a less-is-more aesthetic. He makes space for space! And it's always musical.

    Full disclosure: I have the great pleasure of playing in a trio with Danny and guitarist Grant Gordy, and it is a tremendous source of joy and inspiration getting to share in the ever-evolving musical conversations with them.

    Joe K. WalshAbout the author: Roots musician Joe K. Walsh plays mandolin, sings and writes songs, and is on the faculty at the Berklee College of Music where he shares his mastery of all things tuned in fifths with the next generation of up and coming musicians. He has toured and recorded with The Gibson Brothers, Darol Anger, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Courtney Hartman and many more, and was a founding member of Joy Kills Sorrow.

    Your record Stove Up was a great reminder of what I love about bluegrass. Was there any specific approach in mind as you set to making that one?

    i think we wanted to try and make a record that felt like something in particular. them LPs that used to come out in the '70s where guys was friends and they just set up and kinda picked and had a good time. that's what the goal was. i grew up on those records like when hartford would get all them guys and benny martin and so forth. and they'd do some over the plate stuff and some left field stuff and have a really good groove. the idea hopefully being that if someone heard it, they could juke out pretty good and wash the dishes or drive or clean the house or walk or whatever. you know we can make technically perfect records, but the trick is to make a record that makes people happy. or makes people think. or makes people feel this or that. you know a lot of the picking music was originally composed/recorded to be a bit of a balm or salve for the abrasions of being alive or something. and i think it came from people that had a good understanding of the earth and the bible and life and so forth. hard working people.

    so i was trying to make something that would make people feel good.

    Man on Fire - Danny's latest release

    Man on Fire

    You have written some of my very favorite songs, and are an inspiration to many who write and compose. How do you know when a song or tune is done? How do you know when something is worth playing for others?

    well, they sort of play in the cosmic tape deck in my head and they more or less come out sort of done in a sense. i have to mess with stuff sometimes, but when i get ready to write i think of what effect i'm trying to have. so i'll know when it's done when it gives you that effect if you hear it. the only thing is (i've been working on this for decades) i can't figure out how to get you to feel a certain way on the FIRST pass. the big criticism of my work is that it takes about three passes for it to make sense. i'm trying to make it have a vibe and i work backwards off that.

    these are both really good questions, but really hard too and in a sense i'm sure i'm just making all this up. but i think i'd know it would be cool to play for others if the vibe is there.

    i've written so many albums of music that i sort of... think like okay be cool to make a song about a guy that falls into a river and gets sucked out to sea and passes away but his soul turns into an angel and he falls in love with a beautiful fish.

    something like that. so then i start picking and make the music kinda tell that story. lot of times i'll already have the poetry kinda close. i'm really a minimalist and i'm learning to have very few things in there and to do very little with it. but make it kinda cool.

    Being a musician means being a lifelong student, doesn't it? What inspires you to keep practicing and learning?

    i think what you develop over time is hopefully the masters ear for music. like dawg always knows what not to do and how to do it. stuff like that. in visual art i have a teacher too and i'm slowly learning to "see" the way he sees and can correct as i'm working hopefully. sometimes we don't see our own little problems. and one of them can be, we have a collection of sounds but there's no meaning.

    i get inspired by a lot of things not the least of which is your music and friendship joe. but it inspires me to think i'm learning to do more with less. i really thought that minimalism and some of those guys were super far out, and part of the aesthetic i'm working on is more simple shapes and stuff. just a few colors and so forth.

    i'm inspired by picking with the dawg. and by all the great masters that i have found that i continue to find neat little things in their playing and what not. i'm inspired because i like the sound of my records. they sound good to me i worked real hard to get them that way and sometimes i had bread to spend on things and sometimes i was busted and made things out of zero, but i feel like if you take the whole catalog there's a few really nice things in there. and that feels good.

    Art by Danny Barnes
    Original art by Danny Barnes

    As someone who has learned so much, so well, for so long, what have you learned about the process of learning?

    i don't really feel like i learned that much i have a very basic knowledge of things i just work pretty good with that structure architecturally in a way, and make lots of stuff.

    i can learn more than i think i can. when i was young i got a real bad crack on the head and it altered my perception in a sense and i feel like i'm always trying to catch up. nonetheless i kinda learn by repeated exposure to fundamentals. and i try to play this weird music in my head.

    learning is a slow process for me. if i can feel it in my body i can do it. more or less. get it in the fingers and remember how that feels and do that again.

    Much of the process of learning to play an instrument involves a deep study of previous players' solos, tunes, songs and thoughts. Is there a tension with how we balance this with our own inner sense of musicality?

    yes. to me that whole venn diagram is a bit of a soup. and you make of it what you will in the time you are making it. the nice thing about learning old tunes is that we don't have to learn what we are playing while we are simultaneously learning how to play it. the tunes are already there. if i'm making up music, or don't have a somewhat clear path to my musical goals seems like you're having to solve two riddles. you know it's funny i have students that are good screwer-arounders with the music where they are quick at learning an approximate version of something and it's actually cool but it doesn't cover the vocabulary of the repertoire. and i have some folks that are more the type where they can play by rote pretty good but it might be hard to improvise. so i think if we pencil the syllabus out far enough in a general sense we are going to have to master both views.

    For many musicians your writing and playing are hugely inspiring and are worthy of study. Your essays on "how to play in someone else's band" and "how to make a living playing music" are the stuff of legend, and so clearly articulate crucial concepts that are invaluable for all of us navigating the music business. Do you have any similar suggestions for how to approach musical situations? "how to make everyone on stage sound better?" "how to serve the song/moment?"

    that's very sweet of you to say. i hope that stuff was positive at the right moment in someone's life.

    well, it's a very tall order, if you take a person standing on a stump in the woods playing some awesome tune and you come up, and you have your instrument and you want to play with them. because what gets added has to add. otherwise it's a bit of a mess so to speak. and that's not the easiest thing in the world to do. it's much more basic than playing a hot solo. we can play "along," but if it's not actually making it better we need to go shed. and you can have a huge career in music and not know how to do this.

    i think if someone is singing, it's a really good idea to always keep track of the poem. like if you go to a jam dark hollow is kinda the same groove as doin' my time but the records are really different. so keeping track of the song is a good idea. i've played with these bands sometimes where they will turn up all the loud instruments and then wonder why the quiet instrument can't be turned up you see. really the main thing to follow if there's singing is that dang poem. same if someone is soloing. like if you see a play and someone comes in, they sometimes have a way of focusing the audiences attention on the actor that just walked up and so forth. there's a way of doing that with intention. where you give that person a big old fat bed of music to jam over. and if ever you ain't doing that, you need to quit and go back to doing that.

    sometimes i think we let this all happen. we let the music come out. if i mess with it, it can't come out until it's out. it's good to develop a very quiet mind when you pick.

    What might be the difference in how you approach playing with someone like Bill Frisell versus how you approach playing with David Grisman, or Dave Matthews?

    bill sometimes i play like a drummer a little bit. that way he can chill out and do his thing and hang those chords and colors across the canvas of space.
    with dawg, he's very specific about what he wants. bill is more laissez-faire perhaps but he can also communicate on the fly super good by just raising an eyebrow or looking at you at a certain time in a certain way.

    dave is ...well you are all wired up on the gigs with these internal monitor thing and all the guys are joking and laughing it doesn't go out to the house. it's pretty cool to experience that in front of 80,000 people or whatever. he has a real sharp eye for detail. though i guess it depends on the project i'm working on with dave. and whom the producer is as well, like sometimes there's a guy that has a trip he's laying down from that angle so you vibe with him on that in a sense.

    but overall, you want everyone to go home and say "man that was a cool day we got a whole lot done and it wasn't a lot of trouble."

    Part of your sound on the banjo is the wider-than-usual variety of rhythmic feels and phrasing you have in your bag, and the way you balance these with more traditional banjo techniques and sounds. What have you learned about combining various elements in a way that works, musically?

    sometimes i just hear a part off a weird old record that i have or have heard and i can't really explain where that comes from. maybe i make a space where nothing is so something can happen and then something happens. little parts suggest themselves. that's the deal we have to find parts. if we write a new tune we have to find the parts. if we have a band we have to find parts to play.

    i'm not sure if i'm answering your excellent question very good. if the part doesn't work we have to find a new part. and if all the songs sound the same that won't work either. so in a sense it's like doing a community theater production of othello or something or having a baseball team. and sometimes you need a guy with a crowbar and another guy in a funny hat. we have to make something "happen!"

    Are you concerned about stylistic boundaries? Should musicians be in general?
    i don't know how to answer that. i'm just trying to play the weird music i have in my head and to develop my banjo playing. and as such that's a natural process to me. like getting a haircut or fixing the roof. i suppose i should ponder questions like that but i'm not sure where to start. if we try to lift each other up, that will help us make good choices. in other words if we can write it in a fundamental part of our operating system code, that impetus holds sway over that which comes after in the hierarchy. we should lift each other up.

    I know you cook a mean pot of beans. Any tips for the rest of us??

    well matt sircely turned me onto this trip where i soak them for about four days and pick over them a whole bunch. and keep changing the water and rinsing them and letting them dry, then filling them back up with water and letting them sit. do that for about four days. then they cook really fast after that. put the spices in closer to the end.

    joe you're like 300 times the better cook than i feel silly telling you that recipe though it's really more like a tiny story.

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