Country Grammar

Danny Barnes: homespun philosopher and banjo master
Danny Barnes find his 'Angel' in the details

It's not often that you hear roots musicians breaking down the tenets of an 18th-century Irish philosopher, but Danny Barnes could never be mistaken for your typical roots musician.

A banjo master who pens brown-dirt classics that meld bluegrass, folk, white-gospel, and rock, Barnes is a complex thinker who sings the praises of the simple life. He approaches every aspect of his playing and songwriting with a scholastic rigor, yet ultimately surrenders to pure intuition, what he calls the "other force" that is music.

These days, Barnes finds himself poring over A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, by George Berkeley ("a philosopher cat from the 1700s."). He finds that Berkeley's tome is confirming a lot of hunches that he's maintained for years.

"He's got this whole concept about how things only exist in the particulars, that making generalizations about stuff, you always end up with an incorrect assumption," Barnes says. "That's something I've always kind of stewed on in the back of my mind. People always say, 'New Yorkers are rude.' But you go there and they're really friendly and nice. You've got to go experience it and confront it."

Berkeley once wrote, in his own defense: "Newton begs his principles. I demonstrate mine." In much the same way, while other songwriters beg their emotional depth, Barnes demonstrates his - by offering incisive particulars, vivid details about the small dramas of the rural life.

On his sophomore solo album, Dirt on the Angel (released last August on Terminus Records), Barnes furthers the prowess he demonstrated over six albums with Austin's left-of-center bluegrass trio the Bad Livers, and on his 2001 solo debut, Things I Done Wrong. Right off the bat, he sets the tone with the clear-eyed class consciousness of "Life in the Country," which, as he points out, "ain't like in the movies." When he sings, with a Texas twang honed over 35 years in Temple and Austin, "New country music ain't worth a dime/and the radio plays it all the time," he doesn't sound like a disgruntled musician. He's the voice of rural America, wondering how this load of slicked-up city music speaks to his life.

Barnes' sense of detail - his delight in the particulars, and disdain for lazy generalizations - makes Dirt on the Angel a work of rare vibrancy. He celebrates basic pleasures with "Peanut Butter Is a Man's Best Friend" (which sounds like an irreverent adaptation of an old gospel hymn), "I Likes My Chicken Hot," and the traditional tune, "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy." He pays homage to a favorite baseball player with "Trinidad Hubbard," and offers some homespun wisdom on "Bluegrass Suicide": "It ain't no fun if you don't get higher than a tomcat pissing on a telephone wire."

Barnes is a musician's musician, the kind of artist that other players admire and study. As a result, Dirt on the Angel, finds him enthusiastically supported by heavyweights like longtime Rolling Stones sideman Chuck Leavell on keyboards and jazz hero Bill Frisell on guitar.

In 1999, Barnes moved from Austin to Port Hadlock, Washington (on Seattle's outskirts), but like countless literary figures before him, finds himself exploring his native digs more now than when he lived in the Lone Star State.

Danny Barnes

Tuesday, March 23
1719 Blanco

"It really lets you look at it," Barnes says. "Without having to experience it at the same time, you can sort of analyze it. I feel like I'm also identifying those parts of myself that are rooted there, musically and culturally. It sort of does define you even more. It's very complex. The result isn't what you'd think it would be.

"They say you can't step in the same river twice. There's parts of it that I kinda miss, like the Southern hospitality. It's something that you just don't find far away from that environment. Sometimes I think about coming back, but then again, it's probably best for me to not, because I've just learned to look at myself as a resident of the earth rather than a certain place."

The Bad Livers blew across Lollapalooza Nation in the '90s with a brilliant mix of Americana authenticity and punk attitude, famously reinventing Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" as a bluegrass romp. They fearlessly experimented with their sound, refusing to be slaves to any genre. If roly-poly bassist Mark Rubin was the group's promotional hustler and Ralph White its spacy instrumental genius, Barnes was its creative heart. He looks back on the trio's decade-long run - which ended with 2000's futuristic trip-grass album, Blood & Mood - with considerable pride and no discernible regret.

"We started, came up with what we wanted to do, and accomplished all that," he says. "Then we had to reinvent ourselves, and then we did that. And then we did it again. It became a deal where we wondered what to do next. We got interested in different things. I was developing my songwriting more, and Mark was really getting interested in ethnic music. We had a really good run, more like three runs. We just had other fish to fry." •

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