Saying that Danny Barnes plays the banjo is like saying Lionel Messi kicks a soccer ball. Barnes doesn’t just play the banjo—he plucks it, thrums it, claws it, bashes it, runs it through processors, plays it backward, drenches it in reverb, and layers it over computerized drums, distorted guitars, and weird chicken sounds. His prowess with the instrument makes him a deserving winner of the Steve Martin Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass award, a prize he earned earlier this month and one that comes with a $50,000 honorarium.
Barnes, born in 1961, grew up in the small town of Belton and got his first banjo at age ten. He moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, and while there, he played in local bands like the Barnburners. He first found fame with the Bad Livers, a trio that played bluegrass via heavy metal and punk rock. After six albums, he dissolved the band and in 1999 moved to Port Hadlock, Washington, just north of Seattle. Since then he’s put out some 15 albums, toured and recorded with avante-gardists Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz, and continued to expand the horizon of the banjo with music made with what he calls the “barnyard electronic aesthetic.” We spoke with Barnes about his recent accolades, what it was like growing up in Texas, and what he plans on doing next.
Michael Hall: Congratulations on winning the award. What was your reaction?
Danny Barnes: I was completely shocked. I do a lot of recording at home and get up early, when it’s quiet. I got up at four that morning. Around eleven, FedEx came. I looked at the envelope, it was something from Steve Martin. I thought he’d sent me a CD. So I opened it and this piece of paper fluttered to the ground. I picked it up, saw the number 50,000 on it. The letter talked about excellence in banjo and artistry, and I stared at it in disbelief for three minutes. It was signed by guys like Noam Pikelny, Béla Fleck, Pete Wernick, J. D. Crowe, and Steve. I never considered myself in their league. I always considered myself a student, I take lessons and practice all the time. I’m still trying to get there. I’ve been working like crazy since 1971 on this, and I thought, “Maybe my stuff is actually getting out there.” When you make records, you’re always thinking, “Am I just throwing these off a cliff?” It’s a brutal business.
MH: Do you know Martin?
DB: I met him at a festival in California about a month ago. One of his guys said, “Steve wants to meet you.” We talked about banjos the whole time. He’s a banjo freak.
MH: Martin was born in Waco, you were born at a hospital in Temple and grew up in Belton—is there something about Central Texas that leads people to become banjo freaks?
DB: When I was growing up, people weren’t interested in music. It was odd for people to be obsessed with an instrument like I was with the banjo. When I was ten or eleven, I brought it to school to play at “show and tell”—and people made fun of me. It was brutal. Belton was a farming community, everyone was obsessed with work, football, and hunting. I was obsessed with music.
MH: Your parents listened to a lot of music.
DB: Oh yeah, they were obsessed with country music. My mom would listen to Pappy O’Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys, my dad’s favorite singer was Red Foley.
MH: How did you start playing the banjo?
DB: I’d see John Hartford on the television, on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He’d be sitting in the audience, playing “Gentle on My Mind.” I got obsessed with it. I loved Hee Haw—it had kick-ass banjo players. There was a guy in town named Maxie Roessler who had a dance band that played at the local dance halls. My mom and dad found him and I studied with him. The first song I ever learned was “Wildwood Flower.”
MH: Most kids pick up the guitar—what was it about the banjo you liked?
DB: The thing about the banjo, it looked like a magical thing. The strings are out of order—if you watch someone play the banjo, it doesn’t look like the hand motions would make the sound you’re hearing. It’s like watching a Japanese movie dubbed to English, a weird sort of disconnect. I remember thinking, “What are they doing?” When I got to playing, I realized you can make a lot of music without moving your hand much. From an art perspective, it’s sort of wide-open and informal. The guitar has an established pedagogy, a notation system. For violin, there’s the Suzuki system. The banjo is wide-open, and there are so many great players who have reinvented it. It’s a weird hybrid instrument—both percussion and melody, like a drum with a string on it.
MH: The Bad Livers got famous for playing traditional music with a nontraditional attitude.
DB: Oh yeah. It was an amazing experience. We covered Motorhead, the Butthole Surfers, Ministry. We loved punk rock, Lee Perry, Mexican music. It was exciting, like being in a gang. We worked hard, played everywhere, toured like crazy. We were a band in the true sense of the word.
MH: Why did you leave Austin?
DB: I was ready for something different. And I was always drawn to the climate up in Seattle—it’s like England or Ireland. The cold and damp suits me.
MH: How did you meet Bill Frisell?
DB: We met in Seattle after I opened for Del McCoury. He called me and asked if I’d give him guitar lessons. I said, “Well, I don’t really teach lessons, but we could get together and play some time.” He came over and we really hit it off, have been good friends ever since. Studying with Bill changed the way I thought about music. It was like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where it all goes to color. Coming up to Seattle, working with guys like Bill and Wayne Horvitz and other contemporary music composers, that changed my whole thing, getting it down to the sounds rather than the technique.
MH: What is the “barnyard electronic aesthetic”?
DB: I built this system on a computer, a sound manipulation thing I do, so I can make giant orchestrations, can pitch things up and down, play backward, process it with reverb. I wanted to combine early American music—all that Harry Smith stuff—with contemporary electronic music. I have a live show I do, play banjo and also control this other stuff on a computer with a foot pedal. I do a lot of improvising, I can pitch shift, harmonize. I have a lot of fun with it.
MH: What are you going to do with the prize money from the Martin award?
DB: I’m going to invest it in my art. I have a lot of projects I’m working on. I want to do a straight-up banjo record, get a producer, go to Nashville. I’d like to record songs I’ve been playing since I was a kid, tunes like Don Stover’s “Black Diamond,” some Earl Scruggs, John Hartford. Maybe do an Aaron Copland thing, a Bela Bartok thing. I’m real interested in serialism, the 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg. He was coming up with his music at the same time Bill Monroe was coming up with bluegrass. I’m working on a suite for banjo and tuba, 12-tone music for a banjo and tuba duet, music for two of the most maligned instruments in history. I’ve got two parts of the suite done. This morning I was talking with Steve, told him what I’m doing, he’s happy I’m putting the money back into the art. He’s pretty excited. When you give a creative person money, they tend to make art with it.