As seriously as other musicians take Danny Barnes — the iconoclastic banjo virtuoso has been splitting time recently between the bands of Robert Earl Keen and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and will join Tim O’Brien on his fall tour — one of the defining characteristics of Barnes’ own music is his refusal to take himself too seriously. Since his days fronting the Bad Livers, before his relocation from his native Texas to the Pacific Northwest (where the fishing appealed to a guy who named his publishing company Minner Bucket), Barnes has distinguished himself as much by his attitude as his chops. With a punk-rocker’s disdain for pomposity and predictability, he’s more concerned with amusing himself than with impressing others.
He sounds like he’s having an awfully good time here, whether wallowing in the drunkard’s lament of “Get Me Out Of Jail”, delivering the deadpan kiss-off of the album-opening title track, or getting down and dirty with his National steel guitar on “Cut A Rug”. His transformation of the Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” into a banjo-and-fiddle breakdown is not only exhilarating but instructive (he obviously researched the lyrics, making some plain that I’d never deciphered). Amid the whimsical faux traditionalism of “Get It On Down The Line”, he even cracks himself up as he tries to sing with a straight face.
While he has a penchant for novelty hokum, the tender vocal of “Big Girl Blues”, the luminous gospel strains of Willie Johnson’s “Let Your Light Shine On” and the pointed social commentary of “Wasted Mind” show that there are plenty of other dimensions to his artistry. Few tradition-based musicians show the range of Danny Barnes; even fewer could write a song like “Rat’s Ass”.