Danny Barnes: a banjo legend talks punk and metaphysics

by Patty Templeton

Danny Barnes is a charismatic son of a gun, exuding a humble humor and deep understanding for not only how music touches him, but how it reaches into the world’s psyche.

If you don’t know Barnes, he’s been playing banjo for 45 years in outfits like ’90s punk-roots band the Bad Livers. He’s worked with the Dead Kennedys, the Butthole Surfers, Ministry, Bill Frisell, Dave Matthews, and a helluva lot more. Barnes’ newest album, “Stove Up,” is an acoustic bluegrass album perfect to grill and good-time to in the backyard. You can hear him play from it at the Bluegrass Meltdown, April 21 to 23.

DGO talked to Danny Barnes about the new album and his thoughts on musicians outside of roots music picking up old-time influences.

What kind of ideas are you throwing down on the new record?

Well, it’s designed to alleviate suffering, in a sense, the record is. I think that record was designed to give people a break. There’s some pretty stressed out people out there. It’s designed to sort of lighten up the conversation a little bit, as best we can.

There’s been this sonic arc of how recording has evolved. There was this period in the ’70s where a lot of records got made by friends that were about having a good time and playing. Records don’t really get made like that so much anymore. They tend to be expensive endeavors so people are consciously trying to channel into economic niches. They tend to channel all the energy into a certain direction, from the clothes that an artist wears to the fonts that are picked. They have the marketing aspect down. But there was this period in our history that records could be jubilant people playing.

It also represents this “secret music,” is what I call it. There’s all this music that musicians play when they’re trying to develop an instrument and master something. It’s the music you play with your friends and it doesn’t really get played at the gig so much. It gets played in dressing rooms and at sound checks and for each other, not necessarily for the audience.

How do you view the banjo? If you look back at the antecedence throughout history of the banjo, its primary function was, I would say, to alleviate the stress of day-to-day duality. I think that it has a spiritual role or a metaphysical role, if you will. It bridges the melodic and the rhythmic. It’s a drum with strings. It bridges two different sections of the orchestra.

In that regard, it acts as a portal or something into this place. I’ve heard the phrase the “ancient tones” in what’s referred to as modal music. It has a certain psycho-acoustic effect that reaches back into people’s subconscious. I think that’s why when people hear bluegrass, the banjo, old time music or Delta blues or certain types of traditional music from different parts of the world, there is this sense that you’ve heard it before. It speaks to this other part of you that you don’t have access to in a linear way.

Why do this record now? Why wait 45 years to do an acoustic bluegrass album? One reason is, I’ve always thought of myself as a context generator. I make up context with songs. I’ve been practicing the banjo and trying to learn the banjo all my life. I have a lot of friends who are in acoustic bands and bluegrass bands and I’m a fan, but in terms of my art, I was trying to make up my own music, really. Especially with songs.

Records to me are like making a movie. You come up with this set of characters when you write the songs. The songs are kind of like scenes … When you’re doing that, you’re figuring out what to play while you are trying to play it. When you play music like a bluegrass record – you’re just playing. It’s a little different. I didn’t really write hardly any of the music on this record. It is mostly covers I’ve been playing since I was a kid.

Another reason, is that the grading curve in that world is really, really high. It’s like saying, “Oh, I’m going to be a professional golfer” and even though you’ve golfed all your life, being in a tournament and really trying to dice with those guys is a whole other trip. Same with the banjo. There are so many amazing players, guys like Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny and Rob McCoury, who have these amazing records that are compendiums of technique and composition.

I’ve always, I don’t want to say hid behind the songs, but if you make your own songs, you’re a step ahead of everyone because there’s nothing to grade it against. It’s your song. They haven’t heard it before and then you own it because it is your thing. Kind of like playing pool on your table.

It was kind of nerve-racking in a way, to be honest. It’s a funny place to be when you recognize who the masters are, when you know the masters, but you’re not one yourself. I’m really well aware of that. What I try to do on that record is make a good vibe, a good feel where the listener can enjoy it.

Was there a song that you adore playing but you wouldn’t put out there in public yet?It was “Things in Life” off that Don Stover record. It’s just such a beautiful thing that I couldn’t touch it. It’s like “Stairway to Heaven.” There is no way you can play that. It’s too iconic. Even though Chris Thile’s covered it and other people have done it, I just couldn’t do it.

The record is sort of an homage to Don Stover. He’s one of my banjo heroes and he wrote that song and there’s probably three or four songs off that record and that one I tried, I just couldn’t get it. It would be like singing “My Way,” but you’re not Frank Sinatra.

Your career kinda represents crossing genres. Punk rock and rock ’n’ roll meeting old time tunes. What was it like blazing the trail from alt or punk rock to folk?It was pretty lonely. There wasn’t that much going. When the Bad Livers started in 1990 or ’89, right around there, you never saw a rock band with an acoustic guitar, let alone a banjo. The only time you saw an acoustic guitar was in pop or country music. The whole left-of-the-dial was not there at all.

It was kinda weird, but one of my teachers a long time ago said you start out playing different types of music and eventually you start playing all the music you play at once. I never really thought about it so much but it came true for me. I think a lot of it is being a fan of a lot of types of music.

What did you dig about punk rock that connected with your love of roots music? What I’ve always found with metal and avant-garde and punk rock and bluegrass or old time, there’s an unspoken concept of dignity for poor people. I always really liked that. It’s easy to be in a good mood when things are going you’re way. It’s easy to think you’re doing a good job at life when you have a lot of money. It’s a whole other thing if you have challenges. I think that dealing with conflict is the real test of people’s humanity and to me, bluegrass, metal, punk rock, and old country, really speak to that. There is a non-materialist vantage point that I find cohesive even though on the surface those genres might seem like disparate entities.

How do audiences react to musicians taking a genre turn? If you’re in that band Lamb of God, it seems like you are Mister Metal and I am gonna get in my metal car and go see my metal friends and listen to some metal and go to the guitar store and buy a metal guitar. It’s just the perception vis-à-vis the marketing and genre and niches that makes it seem monochromatic, but when you get to know people, they have a lot of different interests.

There’s a whole lot of punk rockers coming across bluegrass and morphing the genre, like speedgrasss or brass and grass. Any thoughts on that? The guy I’m interested in now is my buddy Jeff Pinkus. He’s been playing a bunch with the Melvins and the Butthole Surfers and he’s got this banjo record that’s coming together that is going to be amazing.

There is also this sludge doom band that’s really cool called Weedeater out of North Carolina. They got Dixie Dave and he’s a great banjo player. I wanna get a record together with him. He has a whole different trip on it.

There’s a lot of good stuff. I feel like what interests me is when somebody is getting interested in something and mastering something. You have to master something: Your instrument, songwriting, ideas – something. If there’s no mastership or great idea then it’s tough to get excited about it. I like seeing someone who can play or really took a lot of time on arrangements or is a good performer.

There’s always good stuff happening in all kinds of genres. Metal is particularly healthy. There’s always a lot of interesting stuff going on in that world.

Any other up and comers out there that are interesting you? This kid Silas Herman. Band is Gipsy Moon. You know Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon? It’s his boy. He’s an interesting player. I got to play with him the other day in Colorado and he’s doing some good stuff.

This kid Chris Henry who played on my record, he’s a really good player. I say he’s a kid and he’s in his 30s, plays with a band called Hardcore Grass.

There’s a guy out of Washington D.C. who is called Stripmall Ballads who is a really good songwriter.

There’s so much and you can’t hardly keep up with it.

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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