"A good song has a way of speaking to everybody" Danny Barnes says. "I have faith that more people are going to hear my songs, which is really what I have to offer. I'm not one of those virtuoso instrumentalists, I can't compete with those guys, but the one thing I can do is write really good songs."
Part Southern gentleman, part humble artist, Barnes is being more than a bit self-effacing with this statement. Widely regarded as one of the most innovative and genre-bending artists of his craft, Barnes' musical interests are both varied and adventurous, and he incorporates that versatility into a progressive approach to an instrument that is musically polarizing and steeped in tradition. Although he demonstrates an appreciation for the history of the bluegrass, country, and folk music from which the banjo's reputation was born, his inventive take is what truly separates him from his contemporaries…using the banjo as his ‘weapon of choice' to play non-traditional music like rock, fusion, and jazz with electronic percussion and loop elements.
He has come to redefine the banjo's perceived image in an eclectic career for which genre definitions have merely been a polite suggestion. From his early days as the driving force behind the impressive Austin-based Bad Livers, a band of pioneering Americana missionaries, through a prolific solo career and the development of his trademark 'folkTronics' project, a startling approach that incorporates digital technology and various effect pedals to stretch the tonal range of the instrument, Barnes has always listened to his proudly offbeat inner voice.
His skills as an instrumentalist and his open embrace and infectious love of music for music's sake, have brought him to share the stage and record with a wide array of marquee artists that reads like a whos who among broad musical landscapes, ranging from bluegrass greats Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, and Sam Bush, newgrass stars Yonder Mountain String band, to Americana artists Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Nickel Creek, to Jam friendly Government Mule, Leftover Salmon, and Keller Williams, to jazz and blues instrumentalists Bill Frisell, Chuck Leavell, and John Popper, to members of the punk and metal Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedys, and Ministry.
Yet, on Pizza Box (to be released on October 20th on ATO records), it is his uncanny songwriting voice that steps to the forefront. However, finding the proper medium for these songs and ideas to exist proved to be a challenge in the early stages. "I was just trying to create the best batch of songs that I could come up with. I worked on ‘em for about three years and I didn't really have an outlet for it," Barnes explains. "I really felt these songs were more like fractured pop than bluegrass or acoustic songs...so I didn't really know what to do, I just kept working, and playing the songs live, practicing them and developing them...writing new ones and getting the poetry right and developing these characters and the overall story arch, figuring how to make the arrangements very simple and to my ear, powerful, chords that were boulders instead of pebbles, making a movie in my head where the songs were scenes and there were common elements that tied everything together to tell this one big story."
Barnes found an ally in Dave Matthews (co-founder of ATO Records). "In the process of developing these ideas, one of the things I ended up doing a few times with my friend Dave, was to sit around and eat sandwiches and swap songs; new stuff we were working on. "Here's one..….(jam) ….now play one of yours! (jam)", it's a great way to spend a day." Having played several shows with Dave Matthews Band in recent years, Danny was invited to perform on the band's latest platinum release, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. Throughout the process, the two had become friends, and Matthews' enthusiasm for Barnes brought this body of work to light, with Matthews even contributing backing vocals on some of the songs (including lead single, "Overdue") and the cover art illustration of the album.
Matthews introduced Barnes to acclaimed producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Jason Mraz). With drumming powerhouse Matt Chamberlin (Pearl Jam, David Bowie T-Bone Burnett), who Barnes describes enthusiastically, "the most bad ass drummer we could find," the team were let loose in Haunted Hollow, Dave Matthews Band's private studio in Charlottesville, Virginia. As Barnes puts it, "If you got good songs and a good place to work, and good people to work with, you just can't lose you know?"
According to Matthews, "Danny Barnes' Pizza Box is my favorite new music, my favorite rock record, and my favorite country record. From the first time he sat down and played me "Road", I knew his next record was going to be great, but I didn't expect this. The music is smart and soulful, and the lyrics are profound. It is heaven and earth. It is Americana, from the back porch to the pulpit, shattered dreams on angels wings. I can't stop listening. In the haze of over produced, "perfect" recordings, Danny Barnes spent less than two weeks banging out an album that may well save your soul."
With Pizza Box, Barnes spins tales of American life like a latter-day John Steinbeck, wielding banjo and pen with equal effect, and the character of his voice as the perfect mouthpiece to truly bring these songs and stories to life. Pizza Box comes stuffed with sharp hooks and addictive vocal and instrumental melodies, but it's Barnes skills as a storyteller that shine strong. He tells tales with the wry wit and humor of Garrison Keilor, the lyrical eccentricities and intellect of Randy Newman, performed with the southern twang and swagger of Levon Helm. Barnes combines and blends all of these elements into a style that is uniquely his own.
A vivid cast of characters travel through oft-overlooked back roads of the American landscape, hanging in forgotten corners as they assess the breakthrough moments in their often self-destructive paths. In turns humorous, touching, and gritty, they leap out of the grooves in flesh and blood, with their bruises, moments of grace and all. His sly observations are slid into richly detailed stories of characters in which the songwriting illuminates the broad experiences and struggles of folks stuck in various ruts. Even at their most unhinged, these creatures are identifiable and eerily familiar.
Barnes sums up the underlying narrative: "The story is this group of people (as they intersect in their physical environs) that are on various sides of the life decision that they are not victims after all, but rather, the cause of their own misery. " Barnes reflects, "I'm just a regular person myself so I identify with a normal trip. That's one thing I like about pop music is it speaks to everybody and speaks to a broader perspective than say, just being a jazz vibraphonist. That's cool, but it's hard to reach out to people. I'm a music fan myself, and what do I like to hear? I like to hear weird pop music, like twisted pop. Songs, you know? And not necessarily in a bluegrass, acoustic or country way, or a jazz way or a rock way. Just these weird pop songs that are about modern life. That's what I feel connected to."
Of course, like any Barnes project, Pizza Box will defy any labels one will try to slap on it. He isn't interested in conforming to past labels and associations, but rather, he is fascinated by the joy and creative possibilities to be found in the here and now. "What I'm always interested in doing is propelling acoustic music forward. Pushing it into the modern world, using it as a form for contemporary expression," he enthuses.
"I tell you, to be 47 years old and to be doing what I'm doing, and to feel like you've got the best record you've ever made by leaps and bound...boy, it's really exciting!" Barnes says with that trademark zeal and energy that keep his music so consistently fresh and compelling. "I just try to remember what it felt like when I was a kid. I try to stay about fourteen, when I was really excited about stuff and I could practice the banjo for ten hours and never think that was weird or hard. I try to remember that – just always being curious and learning. I've never been bored for one second of my entire life."
On the inset of the record, reads a simple statement above Danny's head peaking over the neck of his banjo with a look of willful optimisim and the kind of hard-earned wisdom that comes from age and experience, "A. Hey, we're all in this together, and B. Music is good!" Therein, lies the gospel of Danny Barnes.