"My baby she's workin' for the TSA / Her hair in a bun / Her hand on her gun / We make love with the radio on" – Danny Barnes, "TSA"
Danny Barnes is a study in contrasts, a banjo player who's as comfortable at a punk-rock show or an opera as he is at a bluegrass festival. One night he may be playing his "Barnjo" with a drummer as his sole accompaniment, the next night working with Dave Matthews or Robert Earl Keen Jr.
And although he's firmly grounded in bluegrass, his musical vision stretches from Bill Monroe to jazzman Bill Frisell, from recently deceased art-rocker Captain Beefheart to punk pioneers the Sex Pistols.
"I just try to keep moving, keep experimenting, keep incorporating new ideas," says Barnes from his home northwest of Seattle. "That's the best way to make this fun."
Moving and experimenting musically is what Barnes has done for the past 20 years, since forming the Bad Livers in Austin with fellow oddball gonzos Mark Rubin and Ralph White in 1990. No one could pigeonhole the trio, although one wag coined the term "mutant bluegrass" to describe them, and another called the music "industrial bluegrass."
But the Livers never limited themselves to bluegrass. Their repertoire ranged all across Americana, from polkas to punk rock. They did have original material, but the band became noted for twisted covers of songs by an odd range of artists from Roky Erickson to Merle Haggard to Thelonious Monk.
Although the band was shunned by the folk-music scene that just didn't get the Livers or their alarmingly odd instrumentation (banjo, accordion, tuba, violin), by 1991 the punk audience had embraced them, which led to tours opening for their friend Paul Leary's group the Butthole Surfers.
The Bad Livers had a serious cult following and were all over Houston from 1991-2000, when Barnes began to do solo work. His leaving Austin for Washington effectively ended the Livers' run.
Smart, rocking and twisted, Barnes's 2010 album Pizza Box, his eighth as a solo artist, exemplifies his diverse, open-ended musical philosophy. While the banjo is ever-present and Barnes's nasal Deliverance vocals sound like something from the barnyard rather than the symphony hall, the album is a tour de force pileup of genres.
It didn't hurt Pizza Box's chances to be issued by Dave Matthews's ATO label either. Matthews calls the album "my favorite rock record, my favorite country record."
Matthews left out jazz. Throughout his career, Barnes has almost single-handedly reinvented the possibilities of the banjo, and always been iconoclastic and musically restless.
"I've been lucky to work around a lot of smart, motivated, independent people," he says. "Mark Rubin, Robbie Fulks, Robert Earl, Tim O'Brien, people who aren't afraid of something different, something outside the box.
"It's always fun to work with people who don't want to stand still."
Twanging rocker "Road" is a prime example of Barnes's fearless approach, as he rips into the custom electric banjo/guitar he's named The Barnjo with all the intensity of Jimmy Page; Led Zeppelin could cover the song without causing one eye to bat.
In typical Barnes fashion, he segues out of the trashy grit of "Road" into the soft, folksy, sentimental, almost child-like title track.
"I don't do dope, I don't drink wine, but I likes to play / so I pick the banjo all day, it's cheaper that way"
While Barnes has been known to stretch boundaries with albums like his trip into technology on Barnyard Electronics (2007), Pizza Box seems like a throwback to the days when artists made cohesive albums. But according to Barnes, that was almost an accidental byproduct.
"I really went into this one just wanting to put out the best songs I could," says Barnes, who once wrote a song called "Love Songs Suck."
"I know that sounds obvious, but the writing was what I was concentrating on more than the sound. I wanted to go in with a very strong bunch of songs for this one, but I wasn't looking for a theme like I do sometimes," he continues. "But when I'd finished it, in hindsight it started dawning on me that it kind of has a cinematic thing about it and that it all tied together pretty well."
Mark Rubin describes Pizza Box as "head and shoulders above anything else this year."
His take on his former bandmate? "He's not your average bear."
"I think of Danny's career in Bad Livers as being his tadpole phase," says Rubin. "We had been in bands that weren't very good, and when we came together we were both young, gifted and angry. We didn't necessarily have a musical idea or a true direction, but we were searching. And what eventually distilled was our love for the aesthetics of all kinds of American music."
"It was such a privilege to watch as Danny developed as a songwriter," adds Rubin. "If you go back to the earliest lyrical content of Bad Livers, one of the big things is the way Danny illustrates the dignity of poor people. Poor people are kinda vilified, called white trash or trailer trash, etc., and our culture tends to put them to the side.
"A lot of Danny's lyrics are a subtle rejection of the corporate capitalist thing. Not that it's particularly overt. I doubt if one fan in a hundred actually got that."
Rubin calls Barnes "a hillbilly Damon Runyon" and "the most Christian man I've ever met."
"Danny doesn't preach or get in anyone's face about it, that's not his style. But more than anyone I've ever known, he truly tries to live like a follower of Christ," Rubin says. "And he does it without any of the usual right-wing baggage and self-righteous bombast that goes with that for so many people."
In spite of his musical accomplishments and widely hailed virtuosity, Barnes, who was driving two hours to Seattle to hear a punk band after our interview, continues to push his own boundaries.
"I still take a lesson when I find someone I can learn something from," he says. "I'm always interested in theory, so I'll take a lesson from someone like Bill Frisell. There's always something new to learn."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
So what is it like to work with two irascible, scratchy, opinionated wisecrackers like Mark Rubin and Robbie Fulks?
"I've worked with both of them so much, we've developed a language that lets us work well together," Barnes laughs.
"Both of those guys are so smart, they both have great record collections, they're both very widely read and highly literate, both interested in history and culture, and they're great players.
"What more could a musician want if he's going to work with other people?"