Posted December 2017
If you’re a current listener to country music, you are familiar with some of Dave Barnes’ work. Whether it’s his own solo work or Blake Shelton’s cover of his hit, “God Gave Me You’ or his current composition, “Craving You”, that is a huge hit for Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris. He’s also written or co-written songs for Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Billy Currington, Marc Broussard and many others.
Yet, for some of you, you may not have heard of him. It’s for you who haven’t that my first question to Dave during a recent phone interview that I asked for an introduction of him.
“You know, that’s a great question. Primarily, I’m an artist. I write and record my own music. I’m in the middle of making – I think – my twelfth album right now – which is absolute insanity. That’s primarily what I do. I write and record my own records and play shows and stuff and do these Christmas shows every year.
“But it’s interesting, though, as I get older there’s a chunk of what I do now is also writing with and for other artists. That’s also become a really fun, addition. Another lane has been added to the highway, if you will, which has been great. I just had a song called, ‘Craving You,’ which is the number one for Thomas Rhett that I wrote with his producer. It’s fun to flex all the music muscle that I can. I think that’s a real gift. It’s fun not to just stay in one lane.
“As I get older – I have a family now. I have three kids and I like being home. So, it gives me a chance to not have to be gone as much and it lets me do some different, creative things which I think is always good for creatives – to sort of be able to travel a little bit.”
Though relatively young in years, Barnes has accomplished a lot in the country music business. I asked him what are some of the biggest positive and negative changes in the industry, in recording, in performing – from the time he began his career to this point.
“You know, I think the thing – it’s actually the same thing, which is a really bizarre thing to say. It’s its own Ying and Yang. It’s its own Siamese twin. I think the best thing about what’s happening in music is so many people have access to doing it now. I’m always a fan of anyone getting to be creative. I think that’s a huge part of the way we’re made and it’s fun to get to see people that normally - maybe thirty years ago, twenty years ago – wouldn’t have really been able to do music because of the constraints that were happening there and really be successful and really have success at something that, traditionally, they wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for computer programs and things like that. Now, they can sort of do that.
“I think, on the other hand, that also is making it hard – I’ll use the word, ‘flooded’. The market is tricky because there’s just so – because there isn’t a huge disparity between entry and professional. It’s all so greyed out now because anybody can put music up on Spotify or iTunes. It’s tricky because it’s great but it’s also hard for people who are doing it as their profession and work so hard at doing it and getting really proficient and to feel that you’re really competing with people who haven’t necessarily put in their time. Honed their craft like a lot of people have. Oddly enough, it’s sort of the same thing.
“I do think – which is a different conversation, but it does address what you’re asking - I think it’s tricky where music is business wise now with Spotify and what’s happening in the streaming world. But, I’m not a doomsday guy with that. I think it has a really, really, really awesome plus column to it where it’s not all negatives. I wish we were getting paid more but I hope that will change some day. But it does have a lot of positives, too. I think those are a couple of things I think about on the pros and cons of music these days.”
On that comment, I added that the late Sam Andrew told me that he and his peers were creating the sound that they’re now teaching in schools and cranking out clones by the hundreds every year. I also drew on the memory of the early days of album making and marketing in both country and gospel music. He concurred.
“I think that verbatim. I couldn’t say that more eloquently than you just did. You know, nothing’s new under the sun. That’s the thing all of us who have been doing it for a little while longer have to careful of is getting into this sort of like self-important ‘I paid my dues and I hustled. Now these young bucks are creating something in ProTools and Logic and put it out and they have the same success.’
“Man, there’s nothing new. I think that, for every time I kinda think, ‘God, this feels like a new dilemma,’ you have a conversation with a guy or a girl who has been in it for fifty years and they’re, like, ‘Oh! That was happening when this happened!’ Like, when the drum machines came out, we all got mad because you didn’t need a drummer any more. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah! There’s always some iteration of a problem that’s happened before.’
“I think you’re exactly right and that helps me because I get less, again, doomsday by thinking, ‘Oh, god! This is the end of days we’re kinda coming up on.’ I think the hope is, man, the live show is the great equalizer – sort of like scimitar. It cuts through a lot of things and I think that’s why the market is so flooded. One, because music isn’t making for people what it used to, money-wise. Two, because that’s the litmus paper test. Literally, anyone can make good music now to sell that’s listenable. But, you know, not everybody can go make good music live or give a good experience, I should say. That’s still such an important medium. And, thankfully, it does keep everything as the great ‘leveler’ because it really does sort of remind you, ‘Wow! That kind has been doing this for a long time and he is fantastic at doing what he does!’”
With that all said, I asked Dave who’s commanding his attention, musically, these days.
“You know, a band that I love so much is this band called Wolf Pack that’s out of L.A. and kinda Michigan. It’s sort of like our generation’s Phish – a funkier version of Phish, I think. I love those guys! They’re always doing really interesting (stuff). They’re phenomenal players which is what I love especially about them. They’re so great.
“I just went and saw Mayer last night – John Mayer here in Nashville. He’s such a fascinating dude! John is just so consistently putting out interesting and inspiring music. I was reminded of just the magnitude of his skill set last night. It’s really cool, too, because he’s doing his show in he calls it three chapters, I think where it’s like the band, then acoustic, then the trio. It’s a worthy flexing of muscle. It’s impressive! You kinda go, ‘Yeah, man, if I could do that, I’d probably do the same thing!’”
When I interjected that I thought Mayer’s pairing up with the Grateful Dead members was brilliant, Barnes responded, “If I could be so bold, I really think it shows in his guitar playing, especially. John is such a great player. He’s such a talented guitar player. But, last night, for me, felt like he’d just settled into his skill set level. It wasn’t quite as meandering, I guess is a good word. We’re the same age – he’s thirty-nine. Just seeing him kinda go, ‘I’ve got control of this thing and I know what I’m doing, and I know what I’m trying to achieve and I’m achieving it at its highest level.’ It was really, really, really cool.”
Is there a legacy act that impresses Mr. Barnes?
“You know, I tell ya, Paul Simon, to me, is kind of the last vestige of that, in my opinion. My favorite music is legacy acts. That, to me, will never change. I really don’t listen to a lot of current music. I still wear out all of the music that I grew up on and, really, what my parents’ generation grew up on or, I should say, grew up with. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers – all that stuff is still my favorite music. So, it’s been fun catching them as they come through Nashville. I saw Fleetwood Mac a couple of years ago at the Bridgestone. It was insane! It was so good, and it was so fun because Christine McVie was back. Just such an amazing show!
“You know, the trick with that stuff is not a lot of those acts, I think, are still really making super compelling music and it’s not bad. It’s like Tiger Woods at 80 years old is still going to hit a drive straight. It’s just not going to go as far, you know what I mean? It’s not like they’re bad at what they do. The fire’s not quite as hot as it used to be and rightfully so.
“So, it’s hard to find those bands that you still feel like they’re putting stuff out there, but Paul Simon does do that, somehow. I think his last couple of records are still really interesting. The gears are still kind of turning up there. He’s the only one of those, in my opinion, that’s still really – like James Taylor put out an album. It was great. It was really good but Paul, to me, is still inspiring. I love the guy and I love the music. The album is good. He’s the last one that I feel like I am hearing that I go, ‘God! That’s really interesting and I wonder what that’s about? How did he do that? What was he thinking?’”
When I shared that one of Boomerocity’s missions is to keep our readers current on the latest with our musical icons of our youth, he said:
“It’s insane! I love that you’re doing that. That’s one my favorite things that’s happening with that generation of music. It seems to be that there’s some sense from them to, ‘I’m getting up in age. Anything can happen, health-wise.’ And I really do feel like I’m seeing them go, ‘I really need to sort of be passing this info down. I haven’t thought about that, yet.’ Like James Taylor and Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, all these people seem to be doing a lot more podcasts and they’re writing their books and they’re doing more interviews. Some of that is because they want to stay relevant and I get that. But I also have to think that some of that is, ‘You know? I don’t know how much time I’ve got left even it’s just as a performer. I want to make sure that I’m able to tell my story and I communicate what my music is about and what it’s about and how we did what we did,’ because people care and it’s important.
“James Taylor did one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen an artist do. It was probably five or eight years ago. You could go to his site – and you may still be able to do it – you go to his site and he had showed you how to play something like five or six songs on acoustic. And I’m not talking like the one-shot camera thing. He probably had eight cameras that you could go between and see. One was inside the guitar going out. One was right on his fingers. One was at the end of the fret board shooting down the fret board. One was at the end of the guitar shoot up the fret board. One was ten feet in front of him. That’s the kind of benevolent thoughtfulness that’s really cool. ‘Here’s how you play Sweet Baby James.’ Here’s how you play Fire and Rain. That is so cool! It really is important in a weird way.
“And what I think is cool with what you’re doing is we’re getting access to stuff that you haven’t had access to. That’s kind of what I’m speaking to. People’s mortality is inspiring them to be more benevolent with information. I think that’s huge gift to fans of music. A lot of those guys couldn’t be bothered thirty years ago and now it’s like, ‘No, man, I want to talk about this. It’s important that I tell people this.’ It’s a real gift, I think, to all of us to get to be around for that.”
One thing that Dave Barnes does every Christmas season is perform a Christmas show in a few select cities in Tennessee and Georgia. I asked him to tell me about the Christmas shows coming up and what fans can expect.
“It’s always one of my favorite things to do every year. I think this is our sixth or seventh year doing it – which really wasn’t on purpose. I did the first tour – my first Christmas tour – with my buddy, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors – his band – and I put out a Christmas album - like I said – six or seven years ago. We had such a good time and the response was so good – and, thankfully, that Christmas album – I have two Christmas albums – that first one, when it came out, really resonated.
“I remember iTunes did a big feature on it at the time and did a free download of one of the songs. It really kind of caught. It’s fun to see a lot of fans who didn’t know my music to find me through that.
“Christmas music is so cool because it’s really maybe as much or arguably more than any other music becomes a part of your life because it’s every year. You can love a record but there’s not a schedule for when you’re going to listen to it all the time. So, you can easily forget a record and five years later go, ‘Ah! I loved Hotel California, but I forgot about it!’ But Christmas music, every year, it’s going to pop up.
“The most covered song of all time is White Christmas which people mistakenly say ‘Yesterday’. But the reason it’s so covered is there’s a venue for it every year. It’s been fun because we did this tour and then the next year we did another one on our own and then it sort of caught on because we realized that Christmas shows are sort of – in the best way – the lowest hanging fruit because people always want something to do during Christmas and they love to do the same thing every Christmas. It’s literally an algorithm that you can’t get wrong if you just have a good show. It’s the easiest things to do, in some ways, because people always want something to do. They always want the same thing to do. So, if you can give them something that’s good, they’re gonna go, ‘Yeah. We’re in. We’ll see ya every year!’ And you’re, like, ‘Yes!’
“We put a lot of effort into it. It’s not easy music to play. It’s really fun because it’s always engaging to us – the band – to remember how stuff goes. This is a really weird thing to say: It’s sort of like church music – some of it is church music because of the season – it feels like you’re sort of leading people through an emotional journey; like you’re the conductor of these emotional moments – which every concert is but I think especially a Christmas show. ‘I’m reminding you of what it feels like at Christmas when I sing this. Oh my gosh! It makes me think of my sixth Christmas when this happened and we . . .’ You know what I mean? It can almost feel like church in some ways. It can sound sacrilegious because it’s got such a tie to people and you’re guiding them there. It’s fun and every year it’s more fun because we’re slowly adding markets. It’s pretty easy listening to me, which I love. I feature a lot of special guests. The band guys do their own songs, too. It’s really fun. It’s really a benevolent show for me to play . . . in the best way. It’s a very communal show for us. It’s not something that I get too stressed out about because I’m always excited about getting up there and being a part of it myself.
As for how many cities he’s bringing his Christmas show to, Barnes said:
“I think we’re doing three. I think we’re adding a second Knoxville show (note: they have!), which is really fun. We do Nashville. Yeah, two Knoxville shows and Atlanta.”
Dave also gave me a little heads-up about his forthcoming album.
“You hear this as much as anybody does from artists. ‘It’s the best thing yet!’ We have to be (that way). And I mean that sincerely – not just like we have to be it’s in the script. If you’re not excited about it, you’re kind of doomed. But I am especially excited about this. It’s been a really fun last few years for me. I did the record before this one that was kind of tip of the hat to Laurel Canyon. It’s an album called Carry On San Vicente, which was kind of a throwback – kind of a concept album for me.
“But, I think in retrospect, I think my fans enjoyed it, but I don’t think it was necessarily – you are always assuaging these appetites, you know? I think people are, like, ‘This is what we need, and this is what you do for me’ and I think a lot of people liked it, but it wasn’t, like, ‘No, man, we need the Dave Barnes fix.’ But this album is that. My first two or three records were really diverse and random – kind of all over the place, which I think my fans like. ‘No, we like that you have a straight-ahead song next to a really funky song next to a ballad next to a gospel thing or whatever.’ This album, for me, when I started to write for it, I feel like I want to do that again. I feel like my people want that back from me again. This album is really musical which is super fun and probably the most vulnerable which is really cool because I feel like that’s something I’m not always great at. So, it was fun to – more than most times – to spill my guts on the ol’ page.
“I think – circling back on what we were talking about earlier, I thought about this with John’s (Mayer) show last night. You know, the challenge for any artist, in my opinion, is I think you get four to five albums before people kind of like – this may be a really drastic thing to say – but I think it’s true. I think people start to naturally discount the newer music because of their love for the old music. I literally think that fans give you this sort of five album path. ‘Look, we’re gonna love your first thing. We’re gonna love your second, third and fourth. The fifth, we’re still in. Sixth? We start to lose interest – not because we don’t like you but because we like what you’ve already done so much.’ Everybody kind of has a capacity for each artist. ‘Yeah, I can’t like more than twenty of your songs. It’s like the hard drive of my brain is full.’
“The challenge for every artist is to do your darnedest to create compelling music all the time. You’re fighting for people to be like, ‘Ah, man! There’s three on this new one that I really got to boot three off the other!’ I was thinking about that with John last night. I love his new album and it rivals Continuum for my favorite of his music. I really love what he does. That’s such a win for him! He’s going, ‘Hey! I’m fighting to keep my stuff in your head. Don’t count me out, yet.’
“I don’t think we mean to. I don’t think we do in a way that you’re dead to me. I just think there’s this thing that happens to all of us to where as people start to get older, we start going, ‘Well, this isn’t the young, vigorous whoever. They’re still great but, you know, I’ve got kids now. Vacation in Florida. I have a home in Crested Butte.’ It’s not the same and I think it’s always a struggle and challenge to all of us artists is to go, ‘No, no, no, no! I’m still as inspired. I’m still as relevant as I was and I’m still trying to do my best to continue to serve you through my music to have experiences with.’
“So, I think with this album, that’s a huge piece that, to me, is going, ‘Gosh! I really want you to give this a clean shot because I think it could do to you what music has done previously.’”
As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Dave Barnes how he wants to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be.
“That is, first of all, a wonderful question. Second of all, I think, for me, I think it’s twofold. I heard Jewel – this is so random – but Jewel got interviewed twenty years ago and a guy asked her that on MTV. I’ll never forget this and at the time I didn’t understand it. They said, ‘If there’s one thing that could be said about your music, what would you want it to be?’ and she said, ‘I hope that it inspires.’ And I remember being really let down. I’m, like, ‘NO! You want it to be amazing! Or innovative or genius or profound!’ I remember when I actually got that. Later in my writing. That’s the truth. I can’t think of a better compliment because there’s nothing better than feeling like what you’re creating creates more creating.
“So, I would say, one, I hope that it would be inspiring to whatever degree that is. And, secondly, I would say that it was a soundtrack – that the music served the purpose of making memories for people so that when the music comes on, it takes them back to that place or they can play it while memories are being made that are associated with those moments. I think that, to me, is really what music really does.
“More than anything, I think, especially in retrospect it’s about being connected to memories and that is really what cements music as being as important as it is. It’s sort of a retrospective goal. You can have music that attaches itself to moments that, then, immortalize those moments. And I think, now, when people tell me that, it’s profoundly more powerful than in my twenties.
“People say, ‘We walked down the aisle to your song’ or ‘That was the first song we played for our kid’. That’s cool but when you’re that age but I wanted it to be, ‘You’ve never heard something like this.’ Now, I’m, like, ‘That’s it!’ When you get macro on the thing and you pull way back, the fact that of every song in the world – and I mean every song in every genre that’s ever been written – you went, ‘You know what I want to remember this is that song!’ That is so profound! There’s nothing that can be said that’s more powerful than that about music. ‘We coulda chosen Hey Jude. But no. We chose God Gave Me You. We chose Until You.’ Whatever. I could lay down and just sort of stare at the ceiling for a day thinking about that. That’s just incredible! I think that, to me, is the ultimate compliment or goal or mission statement.”
Keep up with the latest with Dave Bares at his website, www.davebarnes.com.