Banjo player extraordinaire Danny Barnes is the 2015 recipient of the 6th annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Described as “one of a kind” and widely acknowledged as “one of the best banjo players in America,” Barnes is recognized for his experimental sound. The raw and unpolished musical breadth of his compositions has propelled him across the industry today.
As a Texas native and one of bluegrass music’s most distinctive and innovative performers, Barnes is known for blending together different sounds in order to defy labeling. His desire to pick up the banjo stemmed from a Grandpa Jones and Stringbean concert he attended as a child. Moved by the performance, Barnes was first inspired to learn how to play the banjo at age ten. He continued his musical endeavors at the University of Texas, where he focused his studies on audio production and discovered his passion for recording music.
In 1990, Barnes founded the progressive bluegrass band Bad Livers. The group’s 1992 debut album, Delusions of Banjer garnered attention within the alternative rock and country music scene- putting them ahead of their time. Today, Bad Livers is credited with pioneering the way for the current crossover of Americana in notable bands such as Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers. Barnes began his solo career in 1998 and launched his own private record label, Minner Bucket Records, which focuses on cassette-only releases. In 2010, Barnes released the genre-defying album Pizza Box. Barnes followed that album with 2011’s Rocket, issued on ATO. It was produced by John Alagia, and features all-star drummer Matt Chamberlain and keyboardist/bassist Zac Rae.
Barnes frequently plays with artists such as guitarist Bill Frisell, Dave Matthews, and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and has composed the scores to Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys and (with Frisell) the documentary American Hollow.
More recently, Barnes formed the band Test Apes with Ministry’s Max Brody, further experimenting with his desire to create new sounds in music. Barnes’ skill in audio production encouraged him to create an innovative computer program with MaxMSP and a banjo- pulling bluegrass, noise, rock, and electronic music together. The sound created from this exploration is dubbed “Barnyard Electronics” and allows Barnes to perform as a solo artist, while sounding like he is accompanied by a band.
The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass provides the winner with an unrestricted cash prize of fifty-thousand dollars, as well as a bronze sculpture created specifically for the prize by noted artist Eric Fischl. Created to bring recognition to an individual or group for outstanding accomplishment in the field of five-string banjo or bluegrass music, the prize highlights the extraordinary musicianship of these artists and bluegrass music worldwide. The winner is determined by a board consisting of J.D Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Béla Fleck and Steve Martin.
The award is given to a person or group who has given the board a fresh appreciation of this music, either through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation, and is deserving of a wider audience. Recipients must be a professional or semi-professional and should currently be active in their careers.
The award is funded personally by the Steve Martin Charitable Foundation.
“Find Out What It Means” by Danny Barnes
From the album Junior Sampled. Video by Max Brody (of the TEST APES)