Shorthand may be a dying art in the secretarial pool, but music critics still use it daily. Like when they discuss Port Townsend songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Danny Barnes. The former leader of Austin, Texas, trio the Bad Livers, who were revitalizing roots music back when Nickel Creek were still learning the alphabet, Barnes is typically categorized as a bluegrass musician. Why? Because he's a whiz on the banjo (as well as on most any other instrument with strings). But just labeling his curious oeuvre "bluegrass" is like pigeonholing Gertrude Stein as simply "a writer." It fails to hint at the awesome range of his ideas and abilities.
For example, when he answers his phone—ostensibly to be interviewed about his latest album, Get Myself Together—the first thing Barnes asks is how Border Radio's earlier chat with punk icon Richard Hell went. "When I was a kid, I loved his record Blank Generation," he gushes.
Although Get Myself Together came out in early August, Barnes is just getting around to throwing a Seattle-area CD release party: Saturday, September 17, at the Tractor. While other artists might have ramped up for a new release with tons of advance publicity and flesh-pressing, Barnes spent much of his summer touring with jazz innovator Bill Frisell, one of his frequent collaborators.
"Some of the greatest country and western guitar players could play a lot of different types of music," says Barnes, apropos of the duo's unique chemistry. "When you play long enough, and develop, you get to a point where you can make connections between other forms."
Hence Barnes's inclusion of a plucky cover of "Sympathy for the Devil" on the new CD. He didn't choose the tune as an attention-getting cash-in, but because, to his ears, there was a commonality between the Stones chestnut and old-time mountain music. "When I fooled around with that song, it reminded me of an American folk piece, the way the chords are laid out. There is modal banjo music that sounds very similar," he explains.
"A long time ago, one of my music teachers repeatedly used the phrase, 'To create interest.' That got me thinking about creating interest on every level." With Get Myself Together, Barnes does this not only via melodies and chords, but also with the words, recording techniques, and instrumentation. The title cut features Barnes generating a steady pulse on the tuba ("an underappreciated instrument," he opines), while his rendition of the blues classic "Let Your Light Shine" finds him multi-tracking his own voice to sing in four-part harmony. Lyrically, originals like "Get Me Out of Jail" follow a recurring theme about cause and effect, how individuals shape their own destinies.
"I'm trying to make something that, as a music fan, I might like to listen to," concludes Barnes. "Something with a timeless quality, so that, when I'm an old man, I can still perform these songs—or just listen to them—and they don't come off like a leisure suit." n