Hear It First: Mike Barnett, ‘+1’

Fiery fiddle scraping and bowing burn down the opening song, “Fire in the Hole,” the rambunctiously scampering opening tune on fiddler Mike Barnett’s stunning new album +1. Guitarist Stash Wyslouch matches Barnett lick for lick as the duo traverses a lightning fast scramble down a bluegrass highway, propelled by the driving, rocket 88-like rhythm of Wyslouch’s guitar. Barnett recalls that he wrote the song when he was in college: “I had just learned a version of ‘Glory in the Meeting House’, where the G string is tuned down to an E, and the D up to an E. I had a lot of fun with that cross-tuning, and came up with ‘Fire In the Hole.’ I showed it to my buddy Stash Wyslouch, and he brought a heavy metal element, which really meshed with the vibe of the old time drive.”

It’s the perfect song to open an album of tunes and songs that come rushing out of Barnett’s past – he began working on this project several years ago when was living in New York City – and on which he collaborates in duets with good friends from his days at Berklee College of Music, including Sarah Jarosz, as well as good friends from Nashville, including Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, and Ricky Skaggs, in whose band, Kentucky Thunder, Barnett now plays. +1 was originally scheduled to come out on September 11, 2020, but Barnett suffered a brain aneurysm last summer and nearly died. Following two surgeries and bouts of rehab, Barnett continues to heal. As the release date approaches, Barnett reflects, “There’s always the feeling as an artist of looking back on something you started long ago where you want to redo this – it’s kind of nice to look back and see it as a moment in time and let it be at a certain point.”

Notes and phrases from “Blackbird” glide through Ric Robertson’s Beatles-esque “Higher Ground.” Robertson’s lithe guitar fingerpicking slides around Barnett’s willowy fiddling, and the two swirl around each other like butterflies fluttering in the breeze. Robertson’s guitar evokes the mournfulness of a lost love, while Barnett’s fiddle captures the fleeting nature of that love. As Barnett says: “I wrote this in Brooklyn, NY when I was living with Alex Hargreaves and Jake Jolliff. Alex had a tenor guitar lying around with a broken string. Somehow, even with only three strings, it was often the instrument of choice during our late night house jams. That three-stringed tenor was the inspiration for the instrumental riffs of ‘Higher Ground.’”

Mandolinist Dominick Leslie opens “Bucharest” with cascading mandolin runs to which Barnett responds almost note for note. The bright Gypsy jazz symphony turns dark on the bridge in part because, Barnett says, it was inspired by his and Leslie’s stay during a tour abroad in a hotel in Bucharest that was once headquarters for secret police. Barnett’s lilting Celtic fiddle opens “The Breath and the Bow,” and saxophonist Eddie Barbash soon joins in on this jaunty call and response tune careens around every curve in Irish music, from jig to reel, circling toward a surprising climax.

Sarah Jarosz’s haunting vocals evoke the loneliness, the unexpected sorrow at the demise of a dream in the heart-achingly beautiful “Hollow City.” The song floats along a tapestry woven of Jarosz’s caressing octave mandolin notes and Barnett’s dolefully bright fiddle notes to capture the emotionally ambivalent disappointment of a dashed expectation. As Barnett recalls, “This song means a lot to me. It encapsulates my process of letting-go of New York City, where my closest friends and music community were. After a few years living in Brooklyn, my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife, Annalise, got a job offer in Austin, TX that she couldn’t refuse. I was faced with the impossible decision of whether to stay or go. I chose to leave New York City, without much of a plan. When I returned to the city for the first time on my own, I expected the experience to be somewhat euphoric, but quickly realized it just wasn’t the same, hence the title ‘Hollow City.’”

Jarosz also provides vocals on “Righteous Bell,” an old-time jam driven by Jarosz’s clawhammer banjo, around which Barnett’s fiddle dances as they three instruments—voice, banjo, fiddle—ring the song of freedom and righteousness. Maeve Gilchrist’s cascading harp provides lush depth and emotional power to “Just Married,” an introspective yet celebratory tune that dances sprightly with joy. Barnett recalls that the tune “had been floating around without a home for a few years, but it came together just before my wedding in the fall of 2019. For me, this tune feels like a small portal, or glimpse, into a magical time of life.” Molly Tuttle’s driving rhythm guitar and lickety-split leads fuel the jumping bluegrass scamper “Born to Be With You,” while Nat Smith’s thrumming cello provides the whirling backdrop for a tune that palpable conveys the feeling of being stuck “Somewhere in the Middle,” uncertain about what the future holds.

Sierra Hull’s sparkling mandolin notes circle around Barnett’s fiddle in an opulent introduction to “Anna Marie,” creating a lush emotional landscape that evokes the exquisitely painful feeling of loss and love, even before Hull and Barnett add their vocals. As Barnett says of the song, “I was so deeply heartbroken for a friend who lost a dear loved one far too soon. I couldn’t imagine the pain he was experiencing. This anthemic melody presented itself in a time of mourning. The words are few, but that’s often how I feel when things like this happen—at a loss for words.”

Barnett demonstrates his virtuosity and versatility, joining with bassist Jeff Picker for a brilliantly take on Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity,” while Barnett’s “Hybrid Hoss,” a loose take on Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” opens with a furious cacophony before settling into a zinging, zestful tune with Cory Walker’s banjo bouncing off, around, and under Barnett’s fiddle. Barnett explains a little of his process of writing this song: “I sometimes enjoy taking tunes outside the box, but still maintain some semblance of where it came from. This is a hybrid of ‘outside’ and ‘in’ based on Bill Monroe’s ‘Wheel Hoss.’” Ricky Skaggs lends his vocals and plays fretless banjo on the “Little Sisters Medley,” which features a medley of the traditional tunes “Little Sadie” and “Little Maggie.”

The album closes with the jaunty free jazz twin-fiddling of “Piece O’ Shrimp,” which conveys the freedom and carefreeness of earlier days, and features Alex Hargreaves on fiddle. “I wrote this twin fiddle piece during my first month in NYC, specifically with Alex in mind,” recalls Barnett. “We recorded it in 2016, before I moved to Austin. Listening to it now brings back memories of us as care-free youths, venturing through the city, soaking up all its ups and downs.”

Barnett’s brilliant tune writing and songwriting shine through on the album, but his canny inventiveness on his fiddling, his ability to follow a central musical theme in a tune while at the same time effortlessly exploring musical paths that branch off from the main path showcases his inventiveness. His playing is revelatory, and his musical compositions often peel away the layers of traditional music to disclose sonic structures that have lain hidden in the tunes.

‘+1’ is available for pre-order now – HERE.



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