September 2003

Danny Barnes - Dirt on the Angel
Terminus Records 0303
Released: 2003

by David Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Danny Barnes’s Dirt on the Angel is one of those albums that are so delightful to listen to they make you ask, "When is this guy coming to town?" It has hints of rock, bluegrass, and folk, and a delightful variety of mood and pace. There are tunes driven by a rhythm that moves your feet and shoulders even if your dog has just died, others by a lyric that sings a part of humanity’s sweet common soul to a few plain piano or guitar chords. Still other tracks are marked by instrumental improvisation that makes you think you’ve stepped into a jazz club.

"We got an old dog bayin’ in the back of the holler / And a coffee costs you half-a-dollar / The big boy stands in the buffet line / And the gravy lumped up when ‘e poured in the wine…." So begins the 12-line first verse of "Life in the Country," the track that opens the disc. Smoothly and gently sung to a fast tempo, a hopping rhythm, and accompaniment that includes banjo, fiddle and several other instruments played with skill and restraint, the song is loaded with concrete details that create a portrait of country life that is both witty and touching.

The refrain goes, "That’s life in the country / It ain’t like in the movies / The poor folks go hungry / That’s life in the country." The song compares old-time country life, when people used to know how to milk a cow and music was someone plucking a guitar on a porch, with modern times. Now some folks have lots of cash without seeming to do any real work, and music is on cable television. The people briefly touched on here and in other songs hang on to their dignity, sometimes just barely, in a world whose forces and incentives constantly shift and confuse. "Life in the Country" sets the stage for a rugged and varied collection that blends life’s raw, gritty stuff with its profound experiences.

Contrast "Country" with the title track, "Dirt on the Angel," and you’ll have an idea of the album’s amazing variety. "Dirt" is a lovely, melodic, mysterious tune about love, loss, and forgiveness. "Hester, it’s over," begin both slow, lilting verses, suggesting the adulteress-protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Barnes loves Hawthorne’s work). The verses refer to a long-ago lover of the singer, and a very pretty refrain follows each verse: "Will you grant me your forgiveness / With the sunlight of your nearness / With the water on the table / Wash the earth off of my angel."

Barnes, who co-founded, wrote for, and performed with the bluegrass-punk band Bad Livers in the 1990s, sings like a hillbilly trained by Dean Martin. His honesty and versatility enable him to bring something special out of each song. Barnes plays many of the instruments on the disc, and at his side are very talented players, including Darol Anger on violin, Bill Frisell on guitar, Carlton Jackson on drums, Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Dirk Powell on banjo, guitar, and accordion, and Garey Shelton on bass. Some of those musicians are well known, but they all provide skilled and subtle backup and are capable of stunning you with solos that stretch each song’s musicality and tighten the muscles in your neck.

A good listen to Dirt on the Angel is tremendously engaging fun. This has got to be one of the three or four best CDs of the more-than-50 I’ve reviewed for SoundStage! and I highly recommend it.