Danny Barnes first found an audience outside of Texas in the '90s with his group the Bad Livers, a trio that had one foot in bluegrass and the other landing in any number of other places. (It's worth noting they cut two albums for Quarterstick Records, an offshoot of the iconic indie/punk label Touch & Go, and three for the respected bluegrass imprint Sugar Hill.) Decades later, Barnes isn't repeating himself, but he's still respecting his own vision that takes bluegrass as a starting place rather than a destination, and 2020's Man on Fire reveals he's still a first-rate picker with an imagination to match. Barnes has impressive technical skills, but it's his melodic touch and his ability to fuse a traditional instrumental style with various other musical languages that makes the difference, and his collaborators clearly admire his sense of musical freedom. Joining Barnes for the Man on Fire sessions were John Paul Jones (yep, the Led Zeppelin guy), stellar jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer to the stars Matt Chamberlain, and Dave Matthews, who played keyboard, added some vocals, and released the album on this ATO Records label. Together, they help Barnes take this music to some interesting places, such as the banjo with hip-hop drumming of "Enemy Factory," the funky but rockin' grooves of "Awful Strange" and "It's Over," and the contemplative atmospherics of "Ballad of Nope," even as "Coal Mine" and "Hambone Slide" revel in the joys of classic bluegrass sounds. Through it all, Barnes' songs celebrate the triumphs and lament the tragedies of simply getting through another working day, telling the story of the man on the street with wit and compassion that don't water down the sweat and strain it took to get to the end of the shift. Smart but down to earth, witty but heartfelt, appreciating the past and present in equal balance, Danny Barnes is a singular talent in roots music and as interesting as anyone carrying a banjo these days, and Man on Fire is an album that makes the most of the many things he does so well; longtime fans will be pleased, and newcomers with be in for a treat.
© Mark Deming /TiVo