Any musician who when given the opportunity to describe his work uses one word—"art"—is someone who not only has a command of the impact of language, but a sense of humor about his ability.
But brevity does not characterize other people's descriptions of Austin, Texas,-based Danny Barnes' talent on the banjo. In the advance publicity of Barnes' album "Pizza Box," musician Dave Matthews said it's his favorite new music, favorite rock record and favorite country record.
"From the first time he sat down and played me 'Road', I knew his next record was going to be great, but I didn't expect this," Matthews stated. "The music is smart and soulful, and the lyrics are profound. It is heaven and earth. It is Americana, from the back porch to the pulpit, shattered dreams on angel's wings. I can't stop listening. In the haze of over-produced, 'perfect' recordings, Danny Barnes spent less than two weeks banging out an album that may well save your soul."
Barnes' mug and instrument exude simplicity—his promotional photos are more often than not just him and the banjo—but his thinking, shared in his musings on a blog on his website, indicate a complex personality—the kind of guy who analyzes why you, the reader, are not into music anymore.
"The thing about art, it's kind of a one way deal," he said. "The person makes it, and you have to deal with it, or not. I think self-centered people may perhaps have a hard time letting this control go. In order to be blessed by music, one has to give up some control, but it's OK, you can always turn it off or leave it if it gets too intense, but it's worth checking out. My point is, you might be happier with some great music in your life. It's a place where all that other negative stuff can melt away. Don't forget about that feeling."
Others have called his lyrics reminiscent of John Steinbeck and Garrison Keillor and Randy Newman, a combination of excellent storytelling, wry wit, lyrical eccentricities and intellect performed with the Southern twang and swagger of Levon Helm.
Paste Magazine calls Barnes "a true original," and the Austin American Statesman says he's "one of the most wildly inventive musicians on the planet."
His recently released album, "Rocket," is a continuation of his ability to redefine the perceived image of the banjo. The pioneer of a "folkTronics" project, a startling approach that incorporates digital technology and special-effects pedals to stretch the possibilities of sound, Barnes once again proves that what he does is art, but there is a science to it.
He answered a few email questions over the Thanksgiving weekend in advance of his upcoming concert at Whiskey Jacques' in Ketchum on Friday, Dec. 2, at 9 p.m.
Q) Steve Martin once said, "The banjo is such a happy instrument—you can't play a sad song on the banjo—it always comes out so cheerful. What's your position on that, seeing as you have produced some music that is haunting and beautiful and not all cheerful?
A) Well, I wouldn't take what a comedian says about something like that as truth. Listening to eight bars of Dock Boggs would negate this theory. Orchestrally, the banjo is a set of parameters, a high note, a low note and effective range and a timbre. In this regard it is no different than any other common instrument.
Q) If I had no knowledge of you, or access to you, what is something that you would tell a sensory-deprived person about your style that would encourage him or her to take the leap and come see you in concert?
Q) Who influences your work?
A) Contemporary electronic music, poetry, the Bible, punk rock, avant-garde, contemporary composed music—or rather the folks that populate those fields.
Q) Is it a special type of banjo or banjos you use? Or is it what you do with them that makes the music so different?
A) I have my own banjo design but the basic answer is I just use a regular banjo. What makes my approach a little different is I'm a composer/songwriter/idea person that happens to play the banjo, rather than a banjoist on the lookout for a concept.
Q) Does being a banjo player get a lot of follow-up questions when people make career-based introductions at a party? Like "Meet Susie—she's a cat psychic and Danny here is a banjo player."
A) Yes, it is quite the albatross socially. I don't go to parties, though. I just work on music, but the answer to your question is "yes."
Q) Have you ever been out here [in Idaho]? Are you ready for snow?
A) Yes, I've played out there a few times. No, I'm not so ready.
Q) Anything else you'd like to add to this preview?
A) I have a new CD called "Rocket" that is available all over the place.
See the banjo player:
Friday, Dec. 2, at Whiskey Jacques' in Ketchum at 9 p.m. $5.
For a sample,