Banjo strings and finer things

Danny Barnes has added a few items to his survival guide. Barnes, the former front man and banjo-pickin’ fool of the Bad Livers, left the loving arms of the red-hot Austin music scene in 1999, landing among the spruce and flannel of Port Hadlock, Wash., an hour-and-a-half, by boat and car, from Seattle.

If the move seemed strange to the jilted Austin scenesters, Barnes went with a sly grin on his face.

“I’ve got everything required for the body, soul and mind,” he sings on the prescient “Lumpy, Beanpole, and Dirt” from the Livers’ 1999 album Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill).

“I got water, grub and crossword puzzles, too.”

Three years later, from the comfort of his Puget Sound home, Barnes admits the “Lumpy” list was a touch short.

“I also have to have gun magazines, my dog Skillet and very strong black tea,” he wrote in a recent e-mail interview with Mountain Xpress. “Oh yes,” he added, “and an airplane.”

It’s probably safe to add banjo strings to that list. In between flights — Barnes is an amateur aviator — he’s managed to release an arresting new album, hook up with jazz-guitar pioneer Bill Frisell and hone his already considerable banjo chops to the point of genius. All in a day’s work: Barnes’ goal, after all, is to “invent a modern lexicon for the banjo.”

When the Bad Livers first hit the Austin scene in the early ’90s, playing Motorhead covers and opening for the Butthole Surfers, few would have predicted that the path would eventually lead to quiet innovation in a Puget Sound woodshed. The Bad Livers quickly got tagged as “punkgrass,” even as they released a string of albums that gave testament to something much subtler, even divine. By the time the bluegrass community came around to the diverse charms of 1993’s Delusions of Banjer (Quarterstick Records), 1998’s Hogs on the Highway (Sugar Hill) and Industry and Thrift, Barnes and company were ready to call it quits.

Their last release together, a strange little nugget called Blood and Mood (Sugar Hill, 2000), gave notice of the direction Barnes was heading. Dark, muddy and modern, it was a far cry indeed from traditional bluegrass. Which was just as Barnes intended: If you’re trying to create a new sound for your instrument, you can’t spend too much time looking back.

“As soon as the first note is struck on a banjo,” Barnes observes, “people think hillbilly, or old time, or bluegrass, or whatever.”

Barnes considers that faulty thinking, and the fault is shared by marketers, musicians and listeners alike — in short, by anyone who’s comfortable with cramming the banjo solely into the bluegrass ghetto.

“The magazines and whatnot [seem] to want to have the banjo off on its own asteroid, boxed in by its own limitation,” Barnes laments. “My vision is to treat the banjo as a modern orchestral instrument, like the oboe or bassoon, and not as an ethnic instrument. To endeavor to play music on it, and not just a type of music.”

To that end, Barnes has spent his time working on his “lexicon” — which might include, at any given moment, drum loops, jazz stylings and (gasp!) non-standard tunings.

But his approach is hardly the indulgent, intellectual ueber-noodling that distinguishes banjo maestro Bela Fleck. Experimental, yes — but Barnes’ work remains rooted in a deep appreciation for American song: He’s not one to sacrifice art on the altar of innovation. Think Picasso, not Frankenstein. Still lovely, that is.

Take his latest effort, Things I Done Wrong (Terminus, 2002). It’s a gem of an album, showcasing Barnes’ knack for building songs of soul and wit. A casual spin will reveal a few unexpected touches — an organ riff here, a T. Rex cover there — and the charts certainly stray from the three-chord gospel so common to bluegrass. Still, you’re likely to find yourself more enchanted by the stories — Things I Done Wrong is Barnes’ stab at a down-and-out Spoon River Anthology — than by the occasional orchestral flourishes behind them. And Barnes’ peerless banjo picking remains front-and-center throughout. Is it bluegrass? Perhaps. You can certainly hear the old-time American influence. The lyrics are appropriately windswept and forlorn. Anyone raised on Bill Monroe will recognize more than a few bars, and a few more if they’ve got a touch of Jimmie Rodgers in their blood as well.

But Barnes has little interest in joining the contemporary-bluegrass parade, which he sees as more derivative than innovative.

“I figured out that if you wanted to be like Bill Monroe,” he writes on his come-on-in-and-sit-a-spell Web site (, “you’d have to invent your own music. Not copy someone else. [Monroe] wasn’t one to dress up in a 40-year-old get-up and imitate someone else’s records.”

Things I Done Wrong has done well, though with a lower profile than Barnes enjoyed at the height of his Bad Livers years. Reviews are positive, occasionally glowing, and Barnes himself is pleased with the effort.

“My records are like my children,” he writes in a glib aside on his Web site. “You dress them up and you send them out into the world, and you hope you done good. This one is growing up healthy, and he’s not pouring ketchup on the floor in the restaurant. He’s good in sports, likes to read, and helps out around the house. I don’t think he’ll drive the car through the garage door.”

During his upcoming visit here, Barnes will share the Grey Eagle stage with Asheville’s Greasy Beans. It’s the latest in a series of Barnes-Beans collaborations. Beans guitarist Josh Haddix says his band met Barnes in Charlotte a few years ago when they were opening for the Bad Livers.

When the Greasy Beans go back into the studio early next year, they’ll have Barnes on banjo and in the production booth. “It’s a dream come true to get to work with someone like him,” Haddix confides. “I love his songwriting, and he’s a magnificent player.”

At Thursday’s show, expect Barnes to play some solo and also some with the Greasy Beans. Tunes will be culled both from old albums and new projects, from the high hills and the lonesome woods. There will be Beans and Barnes and, likely, a few passages from the modern lexicon for the banjo.

Whatever the shape of the sets, Danny Barnes says he can guarantee one thing: “Music, as a concept, will be the highest priority.”

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