An accomplished and big-hearted artist, sideman and musicians’ musician, Danny Barnes (formerly of the proto-Americana band Bad Livers) has more credits than you’d want to read. But you don’t need to know that he tours with bluegrass master Tim O’Brien and taught avant-jazz guitar great Bill Frisell how to play old-time music. Barnes’s new solo album of homespun bluegrass and traditional-style country is a thing of beauty, humor, and deep but simple pleasures. As facile with flatpicking, slide and bluegrass guitar as he is on banjo and vocals, he delivers a set of originals and cover tunes that climbs all over the landscape of Americana music like a truck rumbling from state to state, climate to climate, all inside one big country.
From his bluegrass version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (featuring fiddle wunderkind Brittany Haas) to the four-part gospel harmonies (all Barnes) on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Let Your Light Shine on Me” and the gorgeous banjo-and-fiddle treatment of the traditional “Cumberland Gap,” Barnes fuses reverence for classic old songs with his own full-blooded yet somehow self-effacing string virtuosity.
Barnes’s original songs aren’t amazing, but his flair for amusing turns of phrase and flawless feel for the old song forms make them interesting and enjoyable, and his tongue-in-cheek hillbilly vocals are a perfect vehicle for the clever, sometimes darkly funny lyrics. His attitude is summed up in “Get It On Down the Line,” a hilarious pastiche of cornball growin’-up-poor country cliches which Barnes himself can’t manage to sing without laughing:
When I got old enough to realize the life we had was tough
I asked my Daddy why he thought that shack would be enough
Three consumptive children and a life that ain’t never fun
Here is 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
Danny Barnes’s quintessentially American music is quirky, sincere, modern and rooted all at the same time. I recommend it highly to fans of all kinds of rootsy music.