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The Unusual Suspects

Banjoist Danny Barnes perfects his craft with an unlikely bunch

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You might not liken a banjo player to a jazz guitarist, but then again, if you know anything about Danny Barnes, former frontman of Austin's innovative punk-bluegrass band the Bad Livers, then his latest collaborations may not come as too much of a surprise. Barnes is a fella who has always strolled happily down the road less traveled. Like when the Livers went in to record their debut release, Barnes chose the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary to produce the album. And after nearly 10 successful years with the Livers, which produced six critically acclaimed records and opportunities to perform over 1,700 shows in the US, Canada and Europe, the banjoist left the band as well as his home state and relocated to Port Townsend, WA (across Puget Sound from Seattle).

This brings us to the place where Barnes and an eclectic array of musicians -- which include jazz guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell, keyboardist and producer Wayne Horvitz and his wife, singer-pianist Robin Holcomb -- are pioneering a new hybrid of music. Highly revered musicians, but an unlikely bunch of cohorts nonetheless, they're creating something unique. Music that, in essence, is simultaneously a real alternative to country and a fusion of jazz. Some critics are calling it country jazz, but Barnes just calls it serendipity.

"You could call it people of like minds who end up being in the same place, meet each other and then start playing with each other," Barnes says of this new collective. "I guess a lot of it is just serendipity." But they're not brainstorming over a name for the group or anything of the sort.

"Sometimes we'll play shows together," Barnes explains. "I'll play in Robin's band. Sometimes I'll play with Wayne. And Wayne and Bill play together a lot. But mainly we work in the studio together.

"The one thing I like about those guys," he adds, "there's a lot of headwork that goes into their music and that tends to happen more in the rehearsal space or in the studio than in a bar or club."

For his solo debut, Things I Done Wrong, Barnes teamed up with bassist Keith Lowe, who had worked with Frisell and also played with Fiona Apple and Zony Mash, and violinist Jon Parry of Goose Creek Symphony -- another associate Barnes met by chance on a late night ferryboat. Calling the project Danny Barnes & Thee Old Codgers, TIDW was released in June 2001. Horvitz, who produced the album, appeared as a guest musician, as did Frisell.

With his first solo effort Barnes managed to dodge inevitable comparisons to his previous work with the Livers. He credits the feat to his new cohorts, his new home and his ability to evolve artistically.

"I think a lot of it was just from growing up and perfecting what I'm doing "cause I work real hard," Barnes says. "What I'm trying to do is centered around music, it's not centered around demographics or advertising or a particular genre. I study, take lessons and practice a lot, so I'm continually developing what I'm doing.

"I've been at it a pretty long time -- 31 years," he says. "I've also been putting out a lot of records through the years. I just look at it like I'm developing my technique and it seems to be sort of opening up. I'm getting better at just my art in general and I've been working at it really hard.

"To me those records sort of represent a continuum of events," he adds. "When I first started making records, I was a little unsure of what I was doing and I was playing around with different things. The more I do it, the more I'm getting my energy focused and dialed in. To me, the records are getting better as I go just because I'm practicing really hard. I practice three or four hours a day."

Barnes continues, "It took me about a year to write all the music on the new record and about a year and a half to record it. I did the production part of it myself. I'm really trying to develop that puritan work ethic about what I'm doing."

The new record Barnes refers to is Dirt on the Angel, and it's due out in July. Along with Frisell, the new record features appearances by Dirk Powell (Balfa Toujours, Tim O'Brien), Darol Anger (Psychograss, David Grisman) and Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band). "I make a cameo appearance on there also," laughs Barnes.

"It's kind of a travelogue of all recorded American music," he says of the new record. "Some of the stuff kind of pre-dates recorded music -- by recorded I don't mean graphic, I mean audio -- and some of the stuff would sort of come from probably around the turn of the century all the way through some real modern stuff. It sort of covers the entire recorded history of American music so it was kind of an ambitious undertaking."

In addition to his many collaborations, the banjoist has also been hard at work developing his solo act, which is how you can find him most often on the road these days.

"I've been developing my solo act for the last couple of years. I did about 111 shows last year and this year I'll be doing about 150 total. It's a little more improvisational since I don't have to worry about a band and stuff. I can kind of extend things and improvise," he says.

"The musicians I really admire are the ones who just keep getting better and better at what they do. I'm trying to draw attention to my work through quality. In what I do, there are people who base what they do on audience reaction," he continues. "When they find something that people like, they just kind of keep doing it. I'm trying to draw attention through individuality and thought, not outfits [clothes] and record sales. I'm a music fan myself and I'm just sort of trying to save music in my own way."

Danny Barnes will perform at the Evening Muse on Tuesday, May 20. For more details, call the club at 704-376-3737.

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