Danny Barnes Rescues the Banjo From Its Unfortunate History

Composer, singer/songwriter, and banjoist extraordinaire Danny Barnes is contemplating his instrument's bad rap.

"Folks are overwhelmed with images and sounds in contemporary life," Barnes says. "And they deal with this overstimulation by grouping things in the easiest way. ‘Oh, that guy, well, he's rich. That guy over there only has one leg. What's the easiest way to group them so we can get on with it?'

"I look at a banjo like a pencil. You can draw whatever you want with a simple pencil. It's a channel to get the idea out, it isn't the idea. But that's not really the way our world is ordered in a meta-narrative sense, I don't suspect. I like the way the bible talks about seeing things the way a child sees things; that's perhaps a more creative way to see things. I like the way the philosopher George Berkeley talked about how things only exist in their particulars."

Barnes is well equipped and certainly entitled to philosophize on the subject of his instrument of choice—possibly the most ridiculed and abused of all musical instruments. As leader of the old-time/punk trio Bad Livers, he introduced a new generation to the potential bad-assedness of the banjo. About a decade ago Barnes migrated from Austin, Texas, to Seattle and folded up Bad Livers. The music Barnes started making around his new home city is more distant from Bad Livers than Seattle is from Austin. Along with a slew of banjo-driven solo recordings of original work, Barnes became a presence among Seattle kingpins and new-music stalwarts Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb, and Wayne Horvitz. Pizza Box, the album Barnes is touring to promote, is on Dave Matthews' ATO Records label, and Matthews sings harmonies on multiple tracks to reciprocate for Barnes' guesting on DMB's 2009 Big Whiskey.

Barnes has made an impressively wide range of interesting music with an instrument most often defined by its limitations.

"John Hartford told me one time style is based on limitation," Barnes says. "I think if you just look at an instrument like a matrix of notes arranged on strings, with these intervals, sort of just as a set of parameters, you can then put it into contexts of your own design. A non-creative person sees a certain instrument and puts it into a context before he even hears any ideas come out of it, but a creative person sees possibilities."

What one sees and hears of a banjo is what first attracted Barnes to the instrument: the disjointed and dueling physics of sight and sound.

"As a young man I got drawn into it," he says. "There's something about the fact that the music that comes out of a banjo doesn't really line up with the visual aspect. It looks like the hand motions are out of sync with the music that comes out of it. That kind of drew me in somehow, like it was magic if you watch someone play. Something about the sound of a banjo just drives me crazy."

For most people the sound of a banjo is something other than neutral. It is almost always nostalgic and almost always suggestive of the American South. It is fraught with associations with Africa and slavery and the forced laborers who brought the banjo to America. Rather than a loaded artifact, Barnes approaches the banjo as a flexible system of sounds of which he is in control. There are cuts on Pizza Box where Barnes' banjo has more in common with beatboxing or choral music than it does with the work of Earl Scruggs or Pete Seeger—or Danny Barnes, circa Bad Livers. On Bill Frisell's 2002 recording The Willies, Barnes reimagines the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl." He scales and arpeggiates his way around Frisell's staid and familiar guitar melody. You hear a song played on the guitar. But from the banjo comes this elegant, dancing metaphor for feminine youth.

Asked if he's had to school his collaborators—Frisell, Horvitz, Holcomb, Matthews—on the banjo, this hillbilly/minstrel instrument he's bringing in to some heady and highfalutin ensembles, Barnes demurs.

"Those folks you mention are all way ahead of me," he says. "And they know the timbre and range of the instrument and how it can fit in. Yes, there's some things on the banjo—how it sits in between a drum and a stringed instrument—that you can exploit. But I don't lead any of the folks you mention anywhere. That's a pretty elite list. Playing with those guys is like going a few rounds with Joe Louis."

Listening to a lot of Danny Barnes over a short period of time, one can be persuaded that the guy actually invented the banjo to suit his own needs, albeit from existing parts in convenient proximity. In such a state, you might need to see a news item more than once to register the fact that Barnes actually has invented an instrument—an electric banjo/guitar hybrid—called the Barnjo.

"Three possible attributes of the banjo are lack of sustain, the inability to crank it up really loud, and low-end range. So that was what I was endeavoring to deal with. It allows me to play my entire repertoire on one instrument within one passage—metal, chicken-picking, banjo, altered chords, Marshall amp, and all that stuff, all in one place."

"We don't know what we are going to do," he adds, asked if the Barnjo will go into production for sales. "But if you invent your own instrument you are automatically propelled to the top of the heap."