Banjo Innovator Danny Barnes Honored with Steve Martin Prize

Smart, literate, innovative, and endlessly creative, Texas-native Danny Barnes plays a mean banjo. For years, Barnes, who was the driving force behind Austin’s defunct and sorely missed folk-punkers, The Bad Livers, has been the go-to banjo man for artists like Dave Matthews, Jeff Austin, Bill Frissell and Tim O’Brien. While fellow musicians and fans have always appreciated his considerable talents, Barnes recently earned the ultimate in peer recognition as the recipient of the 2015 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. A board that includes five-string wizards like Béla Fleck, Alison Brown, Tony Trischka, and Martin himself, chose the winner, and the prize came with $50,000 cash. That’s enough to put a big smile on any picker’s face.

“Man, that was out of the blue. It still feels kind of strange,” Barnes said of the award. “I’m sort of an underground person, and it always shocks me when people are paying attention to what I’m doing,” he laughed. “There’s a long list of banjo players on that board that are pretty amazing musicians. It’s really nice of those guys to take a minute and acknowledge what I’m up to, so it was pretty awesome.”

And what, exactly, is Barnes up to? While he masterfully applies his skills to the traditional banjo strongholds of bluegrass, folk and Old-Time music, it’s Barnes’ frequent forays into uncharted, often electronic, territory that truly set him apart. Known for his “experimental” sound, he incorporates digital technology, a computer program called MaxMSP and all kinds of effects pedals to create what he calls “Barnyard Electronics.” His sonic journeys are remarkable, pushing and stretching the instrument’s conventional boundaries.

“I do consider myself to be like an artist who uses the banjo as a medium,” Barnes commented. “But I consider myself to be a contemporary person, really, in terms of my research and development.”

In conversation, this intelligent and witty musician is as likely to discuss the virtues of Bill Monroe or John Hartford as he is to comment on Minimalism or open source software. His stream of thought is like a fascinating crash course in 20th century art, literature, music and philosophy, peppered with names like Gertrude Stein, Man Ray and Igor Stravinsky, and delivered in a Lone Star State accent by an impossibly cool and remarkably unpretentious college professor.

“Two things happened to me that were sort of like explosions in my brain, like that scene in the Wizard of Oz where it goes to color,” Barnes explained. The first was writing an orchestral score for the 1998 Hollywood film The Newton Boys. In creating music for an orchestra, Barnes consulted what was effectively a “user’s manual” that delineated the nature and technical range of each of the individual instruments.

“I started to think about looking at the banjo that way, like a pencil or something. It has a high note, a low note, effective range and a tambour and things it likes to do and things it doesn’t want to do and this and that. But how could you write for it where it wasn’t really associated with wagon wheels and hay bales and all of that,” he laughed.

“The other thing was synthesis and working with synthesizers and electronic music,” Barnes said. “From an electronic side, I thought it would be interesting to use the banjo as a sound source. So that’s what my ‘Barnyard Electronics’ aesthetic is, using the banjo as a sound source and then processing it. Using it as raw sound.”

Growing up in rural Texas, Barnes picked up the banjo when he was ten. “I grew up in this farming community that was pretty rough. No one was into art and it was just football and all that stuff. But sometimes you’d meet these characters who had these existential philosophies, but they would be like farmers. They would have this weird way of looking at everything where it would almost be like talking to Camus, but they’d work at the tractor or feed store. They had these weird Arnold Schoenberg-ian views of stuff,” Barnes laughed. “That’s kind of how I envision my musical character, existing in that realm where he’s planting corn on the one hand, but he’s also reading the Bhagavad Gita at the same time. It’s sort of like these complete opposite ends of what’s perceived to be the spectrum.”

Barnes was strongly influenced by the early punk movement, as well. “The art part of it really opened me up. When that music happened, it was like a bomb going off. Where I was, it was really hard to get that music. It took a lot of effort to get my hands on the latest Clash record. It took a lot of work. That early stuff, to me, really had a super high art component that drew me in. But for some reason, the banjo has just always been my medium, just like a guy would draw in pastels or whatever.”

Barnes uses a custom-built Bishline Banjo, crafted by Tulsa luthier Rob Bishline, to create his art. Bishline, who met Barnes years ago in Nashville at an International Bluegrass Music Association show, admires Barnes’ chops and is thrilled that his friend won the Martin prize. “I think it’s absolutely fantastic that Danny won it,” Bishline said. “He’s so dedicated to the banjo and music in general and being original with it.”

Bishline, who is a great player himself, summed it up well. “Danny just plays with abandon. He just sits down with that banjo and does his own thing. He’s not trying to sell the latest hot lick; he just plays what’s in his heart. He’s way out there, and he’s not afraid to take the leap. He’s a real thoughtful and truly smart guy. He’s totally passionate. I truly respect him so much, and I’ve been really lucky and fortunate to call him my friend for, gosh, I don’t know how long now.”

- With permission from Red Dirt Nation