A celebrated figure in American acoustic music from the early '90s onward, Danny Barnes is an artist who fuses a deep respect for musical tradition with a forward-looking desire to explore new sounds and blaze fresh trails.
As a member of the group the Bad Livers, Barnes and his bandmates played bluegrass music with an offbeat sensibility and a willingness to throw in unexpected instrumentation (tuba, accordion, electronics) that helped them appeal to alternative rock fans as well as devotees of old-timey music. Barnes struck out on his own after the Bad Livers dissolved in 2000, relocating to the Pacific Northwest and playing music informed by bluegrass, rock, jazz, and even hip-hop, veering from the slightly bent traditionalism of 2001's Things I Done Wrong (cut with his ad hoc group the Old Codgers) and 2005's Get Myself Together (where he covered the rural bluesman Willie Johnson and the not-so-rural blues fans the Rolling Stones) to the rich eclecticism of 2010's Pizza Box and 2011's Rocket. Barnes's talents have also impressed more than a few of his musical peers, and he's worked with Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Dave Matthews, Laura Veirs, and Jello Biafra, among many others.
Danny Barnes was born Edward D. Barnes in Temple, Texas on December 21, 1961. He grew up in a household surrounded by a rich variety of music; his father and grandmother were big bluegrass and country fans, one of his brothers had a passion for the blues, and another brother was into punk rock. When he was ten years old, Barnes attended a concert headlined by bluegrass stars and Hee Haw regulars Grandpa Jones and Stringbean, and the performance inspired him to take up the banjo; John Hartford, the idiosyncratic banjo picker and songwriter who was a regular on Glen Campbell's TV series of the '60s, also had a strong influence on his musical thinking. After graduating from high school, Barnes relocated to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where he earned a degree in audio production in 1985.
He took to the bohemian vibe of Austin as well as its famously diverse music scene, and in 1990 he teamed with a pair of local musicians, Mark Rubin and Ralph E. White III, to form the Bad Livers. Depending on their mood, the Bad Livers could play classic bluegrass breakdowns, interpret country gospel classics, put an acoustic spin on numbers by Motorhead or Iggy Pop, or play one of Barnes' smart and lyrically incisive original songs, and thanks to frequent live work, they won a lively following in Texas. Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers volunteered to produce their debut album, 1992's Delusions of Banjer, which was released by Quarterstick Records, an offshoot of the noted punk/indie imprint Touch & Go. A second album for Quarterstick, Horses in the Mines, would arrive in 1994, the same year Barnes sat in on the LP Prairie Home Invasion, a collaboration between Dead Kennedys' frontman Jello Biafra and gonzo roots rocker Mojo Nixon. (Quarterstick would also reissue Dust on the Bible, a cassette-only collection originally available only at the group's shows, in 1994.). The trio jumped ship to the well-established bluegrass and Americana label Sugar Hill Records, for which they would cut three full-length projects, 1997's Hogs on the Highway, 1998's Industry and Thrift, and 2000's Blood and Mood. During the band's Sugar Hill period, Barnes was approach by filmmaker Richard Linklater to score his 1998 film The Newton Boys, which allowed him to compose for an orchestra for the first time.
Ralph E. White had left the Bad Livers prior to the recording of Blood and Mood, and by that time Barnes had already issued a solo recording, a home-recorded album titled Oft Mendeed Rainment that was initially issued in an edition of 100 home-burned CD-Rs in 1999. By the end of 2000, the Bad Livers had parted company, and Barnes had issued another homebrewed album, 2000's Minor Dings. He had left Texas to settle in the state of Washington, where he formed a new trio, Danny Barnes & the Old Codgers, with Keith Lowe on bass and Jon Parry on fiddle. They brought out the album Things I Done Wrong in 2001, which was produced by experimental jazz artist Wayne Horvitz. (In 2008, Barnes would return the favor by playing on the album of Horvitz's composition Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices and Soloist.) Meanwhile, adventurous jazz guitarist Bill Frisell bonded with Barnes over their shared love of country and roots music, and he invited him to appear on his 2002 set The Willies, and also toured with Frisell following its release. Barnes also guested on albums by fellow Pacific Northwesterners the Walkabouts (2002's Watermarks and 2002's Drunken Soundtracks) and Laura Veirs (2001's The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae and 2003's Troubled by the Fire).
Barnes teamed with Terminus Records for a pair of impressively bent roots music LPs, 2003's Dirt on the Angel and 2005's Get Myself Together, as well as a live set, 2004's Livin' Large … In a Little Bitty Room. Over the next five years, Barnes devoted himself to working as a sideman, playing behind Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Charlie Sizemore, Caroline Herring, and the Rockingbirds among others. Barnes also guested on Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King by the Dave Matthews Band, and when Herbie Hancock invited Matthews to sing a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" on his 2010 set The Imagine Project, Barnes tagged along to play banjo on the track. Matthews signed Barnes to his ATO Records label, which put out two especially diverse LPs from the picker, 2010's Pizza Box and 2011's Rocket. Barnes paid homage to one of his favorite banjo players, Don Stover, on 2016's Stove Up, which found him in more traditional bluegrass territory than he'd visited in some time. Barnes would next join up with iconic mandolin player David Grisman and his bass-playing son Sam Grisman to form a new ensemble called the Dawg Trio. The combo began playing live in early 2018, and in October 2019 they delivered a self-titled debut album via Grisman's Acoustic Disc label. Barnes once again assembled an all-star cast for his March 2020 release Man on Fire, in which the imaginative picker was joined by John Paul Jones, Bill Frisell, and Dave Matthews. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi