After forty years of playing the banjo, Danny Barnes finally seems to be getting the hang of it. Though he has fused punk, electronica and a relentless drive in an exploratory take on the instrument that is truly unique, he still managed to win the “Steve Martin Award For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass.” L4LM’s own Rex Thomson had a chance to sit down and talk with the innovator himself, and learned Barnes’s thoughts on songwriting, the rewards of giving it your all and value of limitations.
Read on to learn more about this exciting bluegrass musician!
L4LM: You’re known both for your skill on the banjo AND your songwriting. Do the two go hand in hand for you, or are these different muscles you’re exercising?
Danny Barnes: That’s a damn good question…(Chuckles) Well, shit. Let me think. When you’re in the music business, you’re always in this cycle, and endless cycle. You write, then you record and then you go tour…then you start writing again. So I guess it all fits in there of the “Where are you in that arc?” I fell like…sometimes they’re opposed a little bit. When you get out there and you’ve got an audience to deal with you gotta read them. I suppose it’s like pitching a ball game. In your mind you can work on all your pitches and figure out what you’re gonna do but you don’t have a batter to deal with. Then, when you get a batter you have to deal with the input he’s givin’ you bacl…so it’s definitely different. Yeah, I think it’s kinda a multiple personality, “Sybil-esque” kinda thing. You have all these different areas in your brain and you’re tryin’ to bring them together the best you can but they are different y’know? In performing it’s so contingent on the environment, y’know? But in writing, it’s a controlled environment…the context is controlled. That’s a really good question…never been asked that before. They’re sorta like different departments in the company, I would say.
L4LM: The reason I ask…there’s classical musicians who are stellar players, but don’t much write. There’s a lot of folks who PLAY incredibly well…but that doesn’t transfer over to how they write. Does that make sense?
DB: Yeah, it’s kinda different for me because the writing is such a big chunk of what I do. making up music…it’s probably the main part of my expression. I sorta use the banjo as a medium, like, if you were doing pastels or charcoal…it’s my medium so to speak. Really, the thing I consider myself to be is an idea person, a person who creates and makes up contexts. And I think of my records as being little movies…little scenes. A person who’s like a pure instrumentalist, that’s really developed as a soloist, without singin’ or writin’…it’s kinda a different animal. It’s a different position on the baseball field or whatever…It’s the same in a way…but really it’s not. It’s weird.
I guess part of that comes from bein’ from Texas. Livin’ in Texas and listening to acoustic music… (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs called it country music, they didn’t call it bluegrass, they called it country. Listening to acoustic type country, or bluegrass, whatever, coming from Texas…the whole kinda “banjo/mandolin” side of thing was really from the southeast more. And so, you’re always looking at things through a lens, you’re looking at things through a key hole, so to speak. I didn’t grow up around all those great players, I had to really work to get hold of the information. If you grew up in the southeast you coulda gone and seen Don Reno and Red Smiley, Ralph Stanley…I saw a bunch of these musicians but not that much. Not as much as I woulda liked to. When I first started playin’ it was really, really hard to find someone who could play the banjo.
If you grew up in North Carolina then you had a LOT of great banjo players come to your town, so that was a different thing. In that respect, I think I felt I had to make a context that I could fit into and it order tyodo that I just had to make it. You know what I’m sayin’? I had to create this context for me to be in, and maybe that’s where some of the writing came from. Because i wasn’t in the so-called qoute-unqoute “Hot Bed Of Bluegrass”…there’s a lotta music in Texas but there’s not really that many banjo players down there. maybe my experience was a little different in that regard.
L4LM: There’s something to be said for need fueling ingenuity…you’re saying you wanted to play this music but you didn’t have much to work with in your area, so you needed to write your own songs, just to have a banjo song.
DB: Right. I needed to create a world I could be in! (Laughs)
L4LM: You write songs WITH other people, you write songs FOR other people and you write songs for yourself. Do you just write songs and then…give them to other people? Do you have other peoples…bent…in mind when you are writing for them?
DB: I think when I first started writing….the first stuff that appeared of my work…was the record “Delusions Of Banjer.” That was the first record that appeared of my compositions. that was roughly 1990, I would say. When I first started I was writing for that band, which was my created context wherein I could exist. I didn’t get to play in Ricky Scaggs Band or be the banjo player in one of those bands where I could really participate in that sorta sound so me and Mark (Rubin) kinda made that thing up. So when I started I was really writing for that band, but it seemed like I was writing a LOT of music that…when you first start writing you work really hard, and you throw a lot of stuff away. You start songs and you figure you can’t do anything with it and you throw it away, and it takes a long time to write one thing that’s really good, that’ll hold up. That if you heard it on the radio, it would fit in with the other songs. Where you wouldn’t just think “Well, that song isn’t really that good,” has a life of it’s own or is fully formed.
But then after a while you get where you could just can make it…you can almost finish anything. I had a luthier buddy of mine who said if you build like a hundred guitars you really start to get it together about how to build them, that extra lil’ mojo you can put on them and I found that true about songs as well. Once you publish about a hundred songs you get where you can massage anything into something. It may be something completely different when you get done editing it, but as far as writing…now I just write stuff. Sometimes, you might happen to see one of your friends and think “Oh! You might like this.” Sometimes I write with people, like this band i have with Max Brody…it’s called the “Test Apes,” we sorta write on the fly. We get together and just start playing and record everything. the we go back through and find stuff that we like and then we build songs out of that. I guess what this is is a long way of me goin’ “All of the above!” (Laughs) When I started I had a specific building I was tryin’ to design, so to speak, but after twenty or thirty years of doin’ something you get pretty loose and approach it in a lot of different ways I suppose.
L4LM: Well…maybe you can… (Chuckles)
DB: (Laughs) I’m using all these different approaches now in terms of when I write with people or for people or a particular project. I’m getting ready to do a record with Nick Forrester who’s the bass player for Hot Rize and is the host of that show eTown. He and I are working on a record, so we’re writing songs sorta together and trying to figure out what would sound good to us playin’ together…what would be a good context for our styles and all that. And then there are thing that I am doing on my own that are strictly just for me so I guess all of the above is probably the answer to that.
L4LM: There’s an adage that opines that it takes ten thousand hours to become great at something. It certainly sounds like you’ve hit that mark.
DB: Oh man…I’ve been at it since 1971 in earnest. I started then practicing and taking lessons. I worked at it really hard. People get into music for different reasons. Sometimes you get into a band with people and you don’t see eye to eye and you realize that the reason that they’re doing it is different than the reason that you’re doing it. There’s a lot of different reasons along the continuum of why you wanna be in a band or put out records, y’know, but for me one thing I feel like I kinda underestimated was the amount of work that you had to put into it. Man, I work CONSTANTLY. Sometimes on those travel days can be twenty hours. I work really hard for really long hours. I mean, I like what I do and I like making things. I feel like I’m working to make the world a better place for other people, which is rewarding, but…I sorta underestimated the amount of work it was gonna take to do it! (Laughs)
L4LM: That’s a VERY popular fault in creative people…underestimating how long it’s gonna take.
DB: (Laughs) Yeah! (Laughs)
L4LM: On average…how many songs would you say you write a year?
DB: Well…I would say…probably about twenty, and then some other pieces too. I work on music that’s not necessarily song based…like my electronic stuff, some of my composed stuff and some of my sampled stuff. I’d say about twenty a year depending on how many records I gotta do…yeah, I would say twenty. That’s probably about right…sometimes a lil more, sometimes a little less. Sometimes that touring cycle might be a little longer than I intend. That arc of “Write, Record, Tour…Write, Record, Tour,” that ongoing cycle so it depends on how it lays out. I work at it pretty constantly so…okay…I have two records coming out…I did three records last year. So this year I have two records comin’ out and next year I’m probably gonna do about four records…anyway…it’s a lotta work! (laughs)
L4LM: Are you just tryin’ to make ALL the money? (Chuckles)
DB: (Laughs) I guess! (Laughs) I was talking to Darol Anger about that. A lot of it is when you get top be in your fifties you’re kinda realizin’ “Well man…what have I got? Like another twenty five years?” It’s like you kinda gotta get SUPER focused. The shot clock is not bein’ reset, y’know. You got a certain amount of time, and what you wanna say…you gotta get it out there. For me, it’s about art, y’know? I have things I wanna do with my music and my art. Things I wanna make and things I wanna do. THEN I haveta find a way to make a livin’ off it. (Chuckles) I don’t really work from my concepts of commerce first. I’m always makin’ stuff, then I gotta figure out what to do with it. From the art side I’m pretty much fulfilled…I can do what I want, really, because I have my own studio set up. I can work and make things so I’m in a pretty good spot. I can do whatever I want to do…I don’t have any constraints, artistically. I’m definitely not a person goin’ “I’m just not fulfilled artistically.” Man, I gotta so many things goin’, and so many things that I wanna do…there’s plenty of ideas…I just gotta make sure I have time to pull it all off! (Laughs) It takes a lot of work. So I was talkin’ to Darol about that and he feels the same way. He’s workin’ like crazy a little bit too cause we’re kinda cognizant of things comin’ to an end. You feel like kinda need to BARE DOWN a lil bit! (Laughs)
L4LM: That’s two big sports metaphors you’ve dropped so far. Are you a big sports guy?
DB: I like basketball. I keep up with baseball a little bit. I relate to baseball in a way because…and even in basketball…like..the San Antonio Spurs…when they’re just getting the crap beat out of ’em, and the clocks runnin’ out and they got two minutes left and they’re twelve points down and no way they’re gonna win…but they still RUN down to the other end of the court, y’know? I like those kinda teams. To me, that’s the real winners there. The guys who can still function and have a good attitude, to try and do a good job even though it’s not goin their way.
That’s what’s hard about life. It’s easy when you’re makin’ a lot of dough or whatever to have a good attitude about things but it’s really hard to have a good attitude when life challenges you. I get a lot outta that, outta watchin’ those guys do that. Down seven runs in the ninth inning and the guy is still tryin’to beat that throw to first. It’s like “Man, I respect that guy right there.” The sooner he gets thrown out the sooner he can go hit the showers and get somethin’ to eat but he’s still tryin’ to beat that throw to first. (Laughs) I watch for those kinda moments.
I watch a lot of basketball, and a little bit of baseball and those are the kinda things I really respect about those guys. I remember one time I was on the road with a guy…I’m not gonna tell you who it was…but I was tourin’ with this guy and this was quite a number of years ago,like 12 or 13 years ago. I was on the road with this guy who was a little bit..jerky…to deal with. Just kinda a little bit of a problem person. And I was askin one of his buddies “Man…is this guy ALWAYS like that? Why is he always so keyed up about everything?” And this guy said “You know, in music you have to go through so much rejection.” Music is such a brutal deal, especially now, with like online comments and everything. It’s a brutal world. Everybody’s got a band, everybody’s got a CD, everybody’s tryin’ to get a gig, everybody’s got a kid learnin’ the guitar. I was talkin’ to John Hartford about it one time and he was goin’ “You know in the 70’s there was like a THOUSAND bands in the country, and now there’s a thousand in every state!” (Chuckles)
L4LM: At least!
DB: But if you listen to it, it’s all kinda the same. It’s a brutal business, and it’s hard to keep a good attitude about it. It’ll really chew you up. I kinda respect those guys on all those teams…just gettin’ totally hammered and the guy’s still diving into second. (Laughs) I can really relate to that. You gotta keep tryin’. You gotta keep doin’ your best. There are people that paid to come in…you wanna do a good job for them. it’s easy when you’re playing to a thousand people. I’ve played on shows where there was 50, 60, 70,000 people…it’s easy to bring it then. It’s not as easy when the club owner is bitchin’ at ya for not sellin’ enough tickets. Like, the snow is really bad so no one is coming out because it’s an ice thing. But, you’re there. You really gotta rally, y’know?
L4LM: I’ve actually seen you at a couple of those smaller shows. One night in Kentucky in particular…roads were dangerous, but i wasn’t missing you play. For the record, you tore it up!
DB: (Laughs) Yeah, I don’t have a “Plan B!” (Laughs) I’m kinda playin’ for myself too. I’m a music fan first. I’m tryin’ to make somethin’ I would wanna hear.
L4LM: I like that you don’t have a “Plan B!” You’ve played with more artists than I can count. Do any of these sit ins stand out for you, or is it all just a blur?
DB: Well…I gotta say…Bill Frisell is the undisputed “Master Of Music!” (Chuckles) Man, I love his work and he’s like the king. I love Bill. ANY of his records. ANYTHING he does is worth checking out. I liked playing with the Dave Matthews Band…those guys are nice, they’re friends of mine, I like those guys a lot. There’s just too many…I like Chuck Leavell, he’s a lot of fun to play with. There’s so many of them you know.
It’s funny. A lot of the people who know my work, who buy my records…a lot of them are in bands themselves. They’re film directors, they’re lighting guys or work in studios…it seems like a lot of the email, fan email I get about a song or an album will go “oh, yeah and I’m the lighting director for such and such tour.” (Chuckles) A lot of creative people appreciate what I’m doin’. I have a lot of good friends that make a lot of good music, and I get to play with them. It’s fun. I really like playin’ with Nick Forster, the guy from Hot Rize. He does that show, eTown, which goes out to like a million people. And he does this thing on there where he plays with these guys, like, these really heavy guys. And he plays with them, he learns their songs…he can do anything! He’s been doin’ that show for…twenty years? He’s been playin’ with all these amazing musicians and he’s really great to play with. He’s a really wide talent. I like playin’ with him because he can play bluegrass or Americana or whatever, but he has this really wide palette. I REALLY like playin’ with Nick. I’m just blessed to have so many good friends who are such good musicians.
L4LM: I try never to ask folks any “Favorite” questions…I know how hard it is to maintain friendships and such…but in your case I was just wondering about highlights because you’ve been at this sooo long and have played with so many people..the sheer numbers are ludicrous!
DB: (Laughs) I’ve been at it a long time! But…I gotta say, for me, the undisputed master of music is Bill Frisell. Man, even just watching him tune is amazing. I’ve done a lot of work with him at various times and I recently just engineered this bit…I had him play on this track. I went over to his place and I…usually when I am working with him I’m playing also. So I have to pay attention to what I’m doing, but I’m also listening while I’m taking care of my stuff. But I engineered this track, I got to sit and just watch the waveform as it flowed on the software and whoaaa…he is amazing. Just his ability to continually spin out melodies and create things. He does all this orchestration off the top of his head and it’s just…a true master of music.
L4LM: I went to see Bill Frisell at Bonnaroo in 2006…I got up close and I looked around in the middle of a incredible jam, to see everyone else’s faces, and I saw like ALL musicians. They were all there to check him out too.
DB: Bill IS the master.
L4LM: As you mentioned earlier, you sometimes like to take the banjo in some interesting directions, with your samples and stuff. Do you dislike limitations?
DB: I don’t know. I guess..I guess limitations are kinda cool. Otherwise you’re just dealin’ with infinity. I like parameters and limitations, because, especially with electronic gear…the more limited the more you can use them in a way. Sometimes there’s a million options and it’s actually more difficult. I don’t know how to explain it. Like…if you’re gonna make a movie, if you’re gonna shoot a scene you can’t just film everything. You gotta figure it out. iI’s like “It’s gonna be in a diner, and we’ll have the light on the back wall a certain way and the glass be a little bit to the side. And we’ll light the table so that when the waitress comes in you’ll only see her back.” You kinda gotta limit things…(Chuckles) Y’know…(Chuckles) otherwise we’re dealing with infinity.
I had an interesting thing happen to me with the banjo…it was from working on orchestral scores. They had these dictionaries of the orchestra. They’re called “Orchestration Manuals.” What they do is they take each instrument of the orchestra, and it’ll tell you the high note, the low note and the effective range., and tell you one little trick you might like to know about that instrument. Like…”On this particular instrument this particular note tends to be flat because…” or “This instrument doesn’t play well with this other instrument because it makes them both sound flat…” or “The open string of a viola is like the open string of a viola is like a C.” Just all the different things you need to know to compare the instruments. And I started to wonder what would happen if I approached the banjo like that. You know with a pencil, you can draw anything. You have a low note on a banjo. You have a high note. There’s an effective range. The tint, the timbre…like what it does, and the little tricks on it. There’s a lotta different places on it that have the same notes…how to be really specific about where your fingers to be.
How would you write music on the banjo that isn’t associated with hay bales and wagon wheels, y’know? What if the instrument was treated like a blank canvas or something? That’s kinda spurred me on…lookin’ at the banjo in that kinda way. Also, lookin’ at modular synthesis. I don’t know if you ever looked at those modular synths, that like Emerson, Lake and Palmer would have, or John Paul Jones. They played these big, modular synths, and they had these little boxes that had different kinds of filters and different kinds of processors and things and way over on the left hand side would be the oscillator. And that’s really just like a raw tone generator…it sounds like a car alarm or something…it’s just like a BEEEP! Like a squeak…just like a pure tone. A pure note.
I kinda fantasized…”What is the sound you were modulating was a banjo? What If the tone was a banjo?” What could you do with that? And those are two of the things that spurred me on to try and make new sounds, and try and make new context for the banjo. Cause those manuals were written so that if you wanna know anything about the viola it’ll tell you. “The viola is in the alto clef of instruments, and alto is a very weird class, and this is what you need to know about it…and they don’t like to change bow direction in this way. So…what if you looked at the banjo like that. And then the other thought…looking at it as a pure sound source. Did you ever get into that band The Residents?
L4LM: YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH!
DB: They had that concept of sound. You should start with sound….rather than…like…the lyric or the whatever. Start with the sound itself. That…that process really makes for interesting music, if you think about it like that. If you start with the sounds and tones…you can start with just the raw sound itself.
L4LM: This is what’s great about doing these interviews. I think I actually just got smarter! Like just now. I lear shit. This is great. Thanks! (Chuckles)
DB: (Laughs) You’re welcome!
L4LM: Okay…we’re getting close to the end here, but we have one more thing we have to cover…you just won “The Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass!” How surreal is that?
DB: About as surreal as you can possibly imagine. Pretty amazing. I never woulda thought that I’d ever win anything like that…it was a total shock. Sometimes I feel like…at the risk of sounding kinda whiny…I feel like I’m throwin’ my ideas off a cliff. You gotta wonder …”Is anybody gettin’ this, or is this just way to weird to deal with or what?” I’m kinda in a sub genre of a sub genre…bluegrass and acoustic music or Americana is kinda a sub-genre…and I’m like a sub-genre of THAT! (Laughs) It’s like being a parasite of a parasite. (Laughs) That’s probably a bad analogy…you’re pretty far down the food chain though. I’m like the guy who’s at the baseball game who’s trying to catch the ball as it flies over the fence. I’m that guy. I never really thought anyone was catchin’ all this stuff. That part of it was pretty amazing. He’s pretty smart y’know. He’s a smart guy.
DB: He’s a fan of banjo music and banjo playing, banjos…banjo people. This process that he’s set up is really invigorating. I think it’s a really smart thing of him to do. It really invigorates the community of banjo players. I think it helps the whole thing. People turn around and make more art with it…that they might not have been able to make. It’s a really smart move by him. It’s like planting the seeds. It’s like planting the seeds and giving them a bunch of fertilizer. Something’s gonna happen. You’re gonna make something out of it. Hopefully there’ll be a cool result. I got a lot of respect for him in that regard.
L4LM: He’s putting his money where his mouth, and his heart is. I kinda want him to start giving awards for everything. “The Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Call Center politeness” and so on… (Chuckles)
DB: (Laughs) I like that! (Laughs)
L4LM: It kinda makes me think we should start the reverse. Maybe give him the “Bill Monroe Award For Excellence In Acting.”
DB: (Laughs) Exactly! (Laughs)
L4LM: Well, thanks for your time. I know you probably could have recorded a whole album in the time we’ve been talking, so it’s much appreciated.
DB: (Laughs) No problem, I’m happy to do it. I appreciate your givin’ me the opportunity to talk about my ideas and things. I appreciate your time.
Here’s a lil more Danny Barnes…goin’ on a “Death Trip”…but aren’t we all?