Danny Barnes, a claw hammer and three-finger-style banjo player from Texas, has been named the recipient of the 2015 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
An eclectic player, Barnes is helping to redefine how the banjo can be used in contemporary music. His own music has been informed by punk rock and dub music of the 1970s, along with his tenure in the 1990s as principal songwriter, producer and singer for alt-country rockers Bad Livers, stints with all sorts of alternative string bands and as a backing player with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Tim O’Brien and others.
“My whole thing is music, and trying to make my own sound,” writes Barnes in an introduction on his own website. “I have developed a specific technique I call barnyard electronics – which is an aesthetic combining various bits of bluegrass, noise, rock and electronic music.”
Barnes’ father and grandmother instilled a love of country and bluegrass music in him, while his brothers introduced him to Delta blues and punk rock. Seeing Grandpa Jones and Stringbean in concert as a youngster reportedly stirred his interest in the banjo. Barnes, who briefly had his own band (Danny Barnes & Three Old Codgers), has been a guest musician on albums by Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and the Dave Matthews Band, among others, and is currently playing with the Jeff Austin Band, helmed by a former member of the Yonder Mountain String Band. Besides the banjo, he also plays guitar and resonator guitar.
The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass was established by the acclaimed actor, author, comedian and musician in 2010 to recognize artistry and heighten awareness of talented bluegrass performers. A banjo player himself for more than four decades, Steve Martin has toured in recent years with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Recipients are awarded a $50,000 cash prize and a specially designed bronze sculpture. Previous honorees have also joined Martin in performing on the Late Show with David Letterman. The Steve Martin Charitable Foundation funds the prize, while a panel of musical luminaries that includes Martin, Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Pete Wernick and others chooses the winner. Previous winners have included Noam Pikelny – banjoist for the Punch Brothers (2010), Sammy Shelor of the Lonesome River Band (2011), Mark Johnson (2012), Jens Kruger (2013), and Eddie Adcock (2014).