by Whit Hill
Danny Barnes writes and sings blissfully weird banjo-based songs about prisoners, spurned folks, bad guys, and other assorted strangers who seem to rattle around in his brain. He does this in a manner that is singularly Danny Barnes unfettered from any kind of commercial bondage such as song form or soaring choruses or yawner clichés. It's rough, fun, clever, and manly, and I love it.
As so often happens with the artists who make a huge impact on me, I didn't ever set out to find him. Barnes was opening I think for the fab Billy Joe Shaver at the Ark about five years ago, and the second he came onstage (I swear, before he even played anything) I knew he was the real deal. I guess I like big, muscly, fine-heada-hair guys who play banjo something I didn't know about myself. What I did know was that this guy was different. In fact, he was different from different. Irreverent, cocky, and funky. A little scary. Like if you touched his arm you might get a shock.
After all this time I have no idea what he played, but he played and sang great, and I do know I ran to the lobby and bought his then-new record, Things I Done Wrong (made with his band Thee Old Codgers), went home, and played it about a million times.
Barnes was born in Texas to a family with deep roots in all forms of country music. His grandma's Tennessee lineage brought him to the records of Flatt and Scruggs. His dad played banjo, one brother loved Delta blues, the other was into punk rock. This, of course, makes all the sense in the world when you hear Barnes's music.
Over the years, he's formed and played with any number of bands all pretty much steeped in Americana forms. The Bad Livers lasted through much of the 1990s and released three acclaimed records
on Sugar Hill.
In 2000, with bassist Keith Lowe and fiddler Jon Parry, he formed Thee Old Codgers. Things I Done Wrong is a fascinating album, filled with often disturbing, often hilarious Barnesisms and inventive, brilliant music, effortlessly played. Here, Barnes's lyrics follow the disjointed meanderings of actual minds. In the kickoff song, "Funtime," he muses, "I got me a girl and a thing for likker and another girl." "Good As I've Been to You," with its jumped-beats and complex/
trippy guitar interludes, bursts into an bertwanging chorus about breasts and RC Cola. For the purists, there are a couple of straight-ahead bluegrass gems like Acuff's "Better Times A-Coming." For the adventurous, he brings in an actual four-piece string section to play what seems to have once been a soulful banjo solo. It thrills me every time.
Danny Barnes returns to the Ark for a joint performance with fellow alt-country icon Robbie Fulks on Monday, February 5.
[Review published February 2007]