Danny Barnes: Fearless American Weirdo

By: Sarah Hagerman


Danny Barnes
I am sitting across a sun-baked picnic table from Danny Barnes at Flipnotics in his former stomping grounds of Austin, Texas. Across the street, skeletal structures that will be the latest high-rise condos are piling towards the azure sky. In a city that prides itself on being "weird" (a word that would pop up several times in our interview), the encroaching gentrification and sterilization of the landscape are threatening to shove the lively fringe out even further. It's from those threatened dynamic edges of American culture, what's often referred to as "old weird America," that Danny Barnes operates - those stubborn places where rebellious, unruly quirk and folklore still breathe throughout whispered conversations and back porch compositions about outlaws and misfits.

"A lot of my poetry deals with that issue," he explains, "trying to find dignity as an outcast, trying to bring some light to that situation."

Barnes certainly has a wide range of friends and musical allies, but when it comes to the industry – which thrives on neat categorization and "Behind the Music" story clichés - Barnes has found himself working as the perpetual outsider, despite being well respected for his jaw-dropping banjo chops. And what a livelihood he has to show for it. I admit to him that I wasn't quite sure where to begin in my questions. Barnes laughs, "It's been pretty weird huh? Like I just worked on an opera, Wayne Horvitz's contemporary opera called Joe Hill: Sixteen Actions for Orchestra, Soloist and Three Voices. It all seems natural to me, but when I look at it sometimes I think, 'This is a weird resume.'"

I've always found normal to be an over-rated concept myself, especially when that "weird" resume includes: a ten year stint heading the Bad Livers (a band of musical missionaries if there ever was one); a varied solo career with several fine albums of re-imagined Americana, collaborations with jazz greats like Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz; gracing stages with the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Tim O'Brien and Yonder Mountain String Band, to name a few; scoring films by Richard Linklater, Ed Herzog and even a silent film score in a collaboration with Robbie Fulks. Now he's inventing a new lexicon for the banjo with a style he has dubbed "FolkTronics." And that's just hitting some major highlights.

Danny Barnes
"It's not like I consciously arranged it," Barnes says. "I think, going back to the Bad Livers, we were that kind of band. One night we opened for Butthole Surfers, the next night we opened up for The Dillards. That was a typical weekend. I've had people criticize me, say, 'You should focus on one thing, come up with something and stick with it.' But I'm always like, 'Well, I would really like to do this now.' I just like a lot of different kinds of music, so I ignored [those critics]. It seems right to me. I like being around musicians because you don't have to explain anything. You know they're into music and they have weird records. You don't feel like some kind of weirdo."

Growing up in Belton, Texas, about an hour north of Austin, Barnes was schooled in bluegrass and country from the emergence of memory. "My mother's family was from Tennessee, around Sparta, the area where Benny Martin and Lester Flatt were from," he describes. "My dad was from Alabama. They were into the Grand Ole Opry, had Jimmy Rogers, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe records at the house. So, I got indoctrinated into that music early." His family's love of traditional American music enveloped the adolescent Barnes, who began picking the banjo.

Seeing John Hartford play at the historic Armadillo (now Threadgill's World Headquarters) in Austin - a venue that played host to a diverse schedule of everything from The Ramones and Van Halen to performance art and jazz – left an indelible impression on the fourteen-year old aspiring banjo player.

"It was the second concert I went to. When I saw him play at that time, one of the things that impressed me was that he had really done his homework in traditional music, but he was also aware of contemporary music at the time - Bob Marley and The Beatles and The Stones. Seeing him at the time was like seeing all music at once. Like when I went to see him years later, he had a Butthole Surfers recording in his van. I sort of model myself after that, to try and be aware of different kinds of stuff, try and get influences from different kinds of music."

Bad Livers back in the day
"When I was first playing the banjo, they used to only have three networks on TV," Barnes recalls. "They had these things called summer replacement shows, and one of these was The Smothers Brothers Show. So, like the primetime TV, at nine o'clock, would go dark and fade back up and it was John Hartford playing the banjo. So when was a kid I thought, 'That must be the coolest thing ever! Here it is on the main slot of TV!'"

With the present MTV (where the "M" rarely stands for "music"), slickness having taken over televisual representations of music, it's easy for our culture to forget that there was a time not so long ago when legends like Hartford were calling us to gather around the electric glow.

With his middle brother a blues enthusiast and oldest brother a punk rocker who built a rough studio in the back of the house, Barnes found other strands being woven into his burgeoning musical consciousness. His continued zeal for the true grit and freedom of punk is obvious, as he recalls the bands he first dug.

"Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, weird bands like Budgie and Diamond Head, some cool stuff was happening pre-punk, but when that Sex Pistols record came out that changed everything. I saw The Clash, The Ramones and Richard Hell. What I liked about them was they had this vision and a drive I really admired. A lot of those guys were really literate cats; they weren't just knuckleheads."

That DIY, do-or-die philosophy would form the foundation that has supported his career, as he left Belton for the University of Texas at Austin to study audio engineering, playing in various Austin country bands through college and post graduation to make ends meet while searching for fellow passionate music fans.

Mark Rubin & Danny Barnes
While touring with a Dallas country/punk hybrid called Killbilly, Barnes met bassist Mark Rubin. Along with fiddle/accordion player Ralph White, whom Barnes met at a weekly Sunday afternoon Cajun jam session, the three formed Bad Livers in 1990. Although often pegged early as bluegrass, the Livers drew on the various influences and interests of its members, covering everything from Thelonious Monk to Motorhead on their acoustic instruments. Principle songwriter Barnes began building up an impressive arsenal of original material and the band gained a local following from a celebrated residency at the Saxon Pub. The punk and metal covers drew in an alternative audience from the get-go, but would also plague the band with a bluegrass-cover band label that they could never entirely escape.

"We weren't a novelty band, although we could make you laugh. Really, what that band was was a bunch of music freaks," Barnes reflects. "We just saw music as everything. We weren't trying to draw attention to ourselves, we were trying to draw attention to American audiences about their own music – polka, country, bluegrass, old time, blues, folk – all that music that exists that is vibrant and still alive."

The Livers threw themselves into the calling with conviction, excavating the American underbelly and infusing their findings with a joyous and, at times, irreverent nature. They managed to keep their overheads low by being self-reliant (they never hired a manager or a crew, instead cramming in a van with their instruments, including Rubin's signature tuba) and seeking out a living as a touring machine between recording seven fantastic albums (four of which were produced by Barnes). Even if the early punk and metal covers were dropped, the ethos of punk remained strong. "Just that idea of bombast," Barnes says, "of totally throwing yourself into a project."

In 1996, Ralph White decided he'd had enough of touring hardships. He was replaced by Bob Grant (guitar, mandolin) and then various musicians who would hop on tour with the nucleus of Barnes and Rubin for the remainder of the Livers' career. The band disbanded in 2000 in a mutual and amicable decision. Barnes had left Austin for Washington State in 1997, and he and Rubin both wanted to pursue other musical projects.

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