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Danny Barnes is a freak. Not in that professional Ziggy Stardust way, but more like the subject matter of the Weekly World News. His headline would be “Banjo Clairvoyant Found in Texas”, and he would totally eclipse Batboy or the fact that Elvis who works at a KFC in New Mexico.
It’s hard to write a brief bio of Danny Barnes, there are just so many bases to cover. From soundtrack work, to touring with the Dave Matthews Band, to his collaborations with legends like Bill Frisell, Bela Fleck and more importantly Jello Biafra. His style varies as much as the company he keeps. Listen to Danny Barnes and his Oft-Mended Raiment and you’ll hear an electronic explosion of great samples and even better original material, complete with synths and programmed industrial drums. Or flip to his work with the Thee Old Codgers for traditional bluegrass and country that would have made Charlie Poole proud.
My first exposure to Danny Barnes was through a record called Get Myself Together. Musically it’s a lot closer to tradition than some of his other material. Bluegrass banjo licks and a fiddle played like a tuba help support Barnes’s unassuming voice and unorthodox lyrics. Those edgy lyrics are what keep bluegrass enthusiasts from completely accepting Barnes and his music. Like in the song “Get Me Out Of Jail” where an early morning drinking session leads to getting fired and then breaking into his girlfriends house. It’s more than outlaw country, it’s fuck-up country.
But Danny Barnes wouldn’t be a true freak, if he could only do one thing, he’d be an idiot savant. No Barnes is truly a multi-faceted freak. He can go from mischief to sincerity in no time flat. In “Get It On Down The Line” he gives hope to the hopelessness of poverty and it’s about as sincere a song as you can ask for. Accompanied only by his own virtuosic jazz chords “Get It On Down The Line” is agonizing in its optimism.
When I got old enough to realize that the life we have was tough,
I asked my daddy why he thought this shack would be enough, With three consumptive children and a life that ain’t never fun,
Here’s what my daddy told me, son,
You can work in a coalmine you can make a little moonshine,
Or you can get it on down the line.
He asks his grandfather and a schoolteacher the same question and gets the same response. While he never explains the title of the song it seems clear that it means that there’s more to life than money; that while making money is something that has to be done, it ought not to be prioritized very high.
So he’s a freak. It’s hard to argue with that. I mean if you put out albums like his you bring that label on yourself. But if these are the consequences of being a freak, who really wants to be normal?
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org