Danny Barnes finally did it. He’s practiced playing the banjo for 40-some years, was the 2015 recipient of the Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, and has churned out a wealth of records of varying sounds. Yet he hadn’t released a straight up bluegrass record until earlier this year. His solo work, and as a member of seminal Austin band The Bad Livers, all dance around the genre, and he’s been a side-man in many bluegrass projects, but “Stove Up” is his first true record that’s solely bluegrass.
Barnes will be in town this weekend picking bluegrass for the 23rd Annual Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, which kicks off Friday, April 21.
“I have this theory of ‘the secret music,’” said Barnes. “If I go on the road with a band, and it’s me opening for a bigger act, they have their record, and I have my record, there’s this music we play for each other sitting around the dressing room. It’s this music that musician’s play that’s the ‘secret-music’ and people don’t get a chance to hear that. So my whole record is built around the music I sit around with my friends and play.”
Barnes is a humble, heck-of-a-nice guy with an eternal to-do list, a strong work ethic and a life-long desire to learn. He talks highly of those he regards as “masters,” people like Vassar Clements, Tim O’Brien, Santiago Jimenez Jr. or Ronnie Lane, while stating he’s still a music student. He’s also quick to express as much love for The Butthole Surfers as he does for Chubby Wise.
Listen to any Bad Livers records, his solo outings, or his punk-noise duo Test Apes, and you’ll learn that he’s a genre-less musician, a man that exists on his own level pursuing all sorts of sounds. The Steve Martin award wasn’t awarded to him by a bunch of talentless executives or given to him because of album sales; it was awarded for innovation, coming from J.D. Crowe and Noam Pikelny, Bela Fleck and Steve Martin, people who have proved a banjo in the right hands can be a limitless instrument.
“I always considered myself an underdog’s underdog,” said Barnes. “I never thought I’d be on the radar of those guys. It was really an honor, like the true definition of the word. It let me know that there are people listening and appreciative of what I’m doing.”
The Durango Bluegrass Meltdown remains a gem in the festival world. It’s void of a lot of nonsense at festivals that put party first and music second. This is a scene to show up, shut up, and listen. In that order.
It’s also a musician’s festival, a gathering of folks that have fun when onstage, and dig what they are seeing when offstage.
Billed as “The Danny Barnes Trio,” he’s joined by Grant Gordy, who logged time playing guitar with David Grisman, and mandolin player Joe K. Walsh. They’ll be digging into some cuts off “Stove Up” and listeners should expect some traditional bluegrass but always with a foot on the gas pedal.
“They are some high-level picker dudes,” said Barnes. “We’re just friends, and we like to play together, and run around in a rental car. They’re advanced musicians and really fun to play with.”
The festival will also feature Town Mountain, David Parmley and Cardinal Tradition, Kathy Kallick, Ragged Union, along with regional and local bands.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]