Banjo visionary Danny Barnes has worn many labels. In the 90s he pioneered punk-grass in the popular unorthodox string band Bad Livers. He’s scored films for acclaimed director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused). He’s been a reliable sideman for Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen and newgrass ace Tim O’Brien. These days, though, Barnes is focusing on songwriting, and he recently received a big endorsement from someone who knows a thing or two about the craft—Dave Matthews.

Barnes and Matthews became friends when Keen was opening amphitheatres for the Dave Matthews Band. Soon Barnes was sitting in with DMB on a nightly basis, and he made an appearance on the group’s latest album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.

When it came time for Barnes to record his new solo album, Pizza Box, Matthews gave him the keys to his Haunted Hollow Studios—a rural escape on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Va. He also hooked him up with producer John Aliaga, whose resume includes work with DMB, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz. Matthews also released the disc on his own ATO Records and sang backup on four songs.

“Being an underground artist, many fans of my music are musicians,” Barnes says when asked about his fortunate friendship with Matthews. “I’ve been lucky that some of them are in huge bands. It feels good when people you look up to think you’re doing something special.”

Barnes wrote the 11 songs on Pizza Box over a three-year period. On the album he largely downplays his instrumental prowess; instead he uses his banjo as a storyteller’s tool in the heartfelt vein of the late John Hartford. With a lingering drawl, Barnes sings quirky and concise yet very visual vignettes that surface life’s mundane mysteries and random shady characters.

“The music is smart and soulful, and the lyrics are profound,” says Matthews. “It is heaven and earth. It is Americana, from the back porch to the pulpit, shattered dreams on angels’ wings.”

With the help of Aliaga, Barnes was able to deliver what he calls “fractured pop songs.” The album mixes earthy folk-rock twang with plenty of polished studio touches.

“I’ve never worked with someone so versed in pop,” Barnes says of Aliaga. “It helped the record become more about visions and ideas, as opposed to hot licks. Typically I’ve always worked with producers who are into country or bluegrass.”

During Barnes’ solo live shows he augments his banjo with a laptop to create an original sound he’s dubbed “Folktronics.” He developed the style with another high-profile friend, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. During a visit to Jones’ house in London, Barnes got an idea to run his banjo through a tone generator to manipulate its sound. It’s resulted in a dynamic one-man-band act that mixes Barnes’ tight picking with an unlimited range of digital sonic flourishes.

“The aesthetic of a banjo and a laptop together blows my mind,” he says. “I can take the banjo out of its original context and make orchestral sounds or anything else that seems cool. I can morph things depending on the vibe of the audience. More creativity comes out of me that way—I’m able to take a left turn during the show whenever I want. I can freak out with no restrictions.”

ESSENTIAL BARNES ALBUMS
In addition to his seven solo albums, Danny Barnes has been featured on over 50 albums with former bands and high-profile friends. Here’s a look at some of his best.

Bad Livers: Hogs on the Highway
In Bad Livers, Barnes was mixing old-time and punk long before the current widespread movement. Hogs on the Highway is the band’s 1997 debut record for the venerable acoustic label Sugar Hill Records.

Danny Barnes: Dirt on the Angel
This essential 2003 solo effort features help from jazz guitar great Bill Frisell, former Rolling Stones’ keyboardist Chuck Levell, and fiddle master Darol Anger.

Bill Frisell: The Willies
Barnes helped Frisell explore his rootsy side as a key player on this 2002 effort for Nonesuch Records.

Danny Barnes: Barnyard Electronics
This 2007 disc is a great taste of Barnes’ inventive “Folktronics” concoction of digitally enhanced banjo.

Danny Barnes: Pizza Box
Barnes’ new BFF Dave Matthews guests on this superb new eclectic Americana effort recorded in Charlottesville.