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May 17, 2010

Russ Barenberg

Ok, on to number 3! This time the best aspects of the previous 2 artists are joined for two truly remarkable albums. To start, let me say that there is something very personal, immediate, and beautiful about Russ's playing. His tone is instantly recognizable. And like Statman, one gets the feeling that there's no separation, no pretension of 'coolness' about his music. He's one of the few artists who can convey such a sense of joy in a purely instrumental setting. Where Statman went to outer-space, to mystery of mysticism to find beauty, Russ finds it in the things close at hand. It is a very ordinary beauty, and an infectious one. It's a treasure to hear someone who can smile so genuinely through his guitar. And the range of moods, sounds, tones! Totally expansive. Exploratory, without ever feeling forced. It's like he lets go of the uptight DRIVE that underpins so much of bluegrass, and settles into a relaxed groove that MOVES, in a slinky stately way - the same groove that Geoff Muldaur and Amos Garrett like to dwell in. Once again, totally unique, fresh, and invigorating. Totally enjoyable. And totally out-of-print, so be thankful you don't have to pay $60 for a used copy at Amazon...

Acoustic guitarist Russ Barenberg is known as one of the most melodic instrumentalists in contemporary acoustic music, and his compositions are among the finest the genre has to offer. He got his start in 1970 with the groundbreaking bluegrass band Country Cooking and since then has been a member of a variety of highly influential groups, most notably his collaboration from 1989 to 2001 in a trio with dobro master Jerry Douglas and bassist Edgar Meyer. Barenberg’s 1979 debut solo album Cowboy Calypso showcased his sophisticated playing and immediately established him as one of the premier composers and arrangers in the emerging new acoustic scene. His work since then, including his most recent collection, When at Last (2007), reflects an ever-deepening musicality with continuing dedication to vibrant, roots-based melodies and ensemble interplay. “Little Monk,” the opening track from When at Last, was nominated for the 2008 GRAMMY for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Barenberg began playing guitar at the age of 13 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia. He took lessons from Alan Miller, the older brother of future band mate, guitarist John Miller, and was inspired early on by guitarists Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Clarence White along with a wide range of old-time, bluegrass and contemporary folk and blues artists.

While attending Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, in 1970, Barenberg joined with Peter Wernick, Tony Trischka, Kenny Kosek and John Miller to form Country Cooking. During the four years that Country Cooking was together, the group recorded two influential albums, Country Cooking: 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals and Barrel of Fun and accompanied mandolinist Frank Wakefield on a third album. Barenberg also played on a number of Trischka’s solo albums throughout the 1970’s.

After Country Cooking disbanded in 1975, Barenberg temporarily switched to electric guitar and performed with a jazz-rock band, Carried Away. In 1977 he moved to New York and, together with Trischka, Miller, and fiddler Matt Glaser, formed the eclectic string band, Heartlands. Heartlands backed Barenberg on many of the cuts on Cowboy Calypso.

Moving to Boston in 1979, he joined Glaser and fiddler/mandolinist Jay Ungar in the triple-fiddle band Fiddle Fever, recording two albums with the group. Fiddle Fever’s recording of “Ashokan Farewell” was later used as the centerpiece for the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ celebrated documentary, The Civil War. Barenberg played on the soundtracks for several other Burns’ films as well, including The Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers and Huey Long. During this time, he also worked with Glaser and mandolinist Andy Statman in the experimental bluegrass-jazz band Laughing Hands. Barenberg recorded his second solo album, Behind the Melodies, in 1983. That album, along with his appearance on Jerry Douglas’s 1982 release, Fluxedo, marked the beginnings of an ongoing series of collaborations between the two musicians. While in Boston, Barenberg was also active in the vibrant contradance scene, playing frequently for dances. He played on fiddler Rodney Miller’s recording, Airplang, which was seminal to the development of contradance music in the late 80’s and 90’s. A number of Barenberg’s own tunes have since become popular standards in the contradance repertoire.

Barenberg moved to Nashville in 1986 and has lived there since. Along with Douglas, he worked for several years accompanying Irish singer, Maura O’Connell, and in 1988 recorded his third solo album, Moving Pictures, another beautiful collection of original instrumentals featuring Douglas, Meyer, banjoist Bela Fleck, and fiddlers Mark O’Connor and Stuart Duncan, among others. The previously mentioned trio with Douglas and Meyer, active throughout the 1990’s, was a highly original ensemble that further reshaped the direction of acoustic music. Their popular 1993 recording, Skip, Hop & Wobble, has been extremely influential with the a new generation of acoustic instrumentalists. In 1996 Barenberg worked with Douglas, fiddler Darol Anger and Los Angeles-based music producer Snuffy Walden to create the soundtrack for Homecoming, a film starring Anne Bancroft.

Barenberg has performed and recorded with many other top acoustic and country music artists including Randy Travis, Emmy Lou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Paul Brady, Darryl Scott, Joan Osborne, Bryan Sutton, Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, Eddi Reader, Natalie McMaster and Sharon Shannon. Many of these musical associations came about through his ongoing work on The Transatlantic Sessions, a series of television shows produced in Scotland beginning in 1994 that bring together top acoustic musicians from the British Isles and the United States for collaborative performances. The fourth and most recent group of Transatlantic Sessions was filmed in March 2009.

Known widely as an exceptional teacher and author of instructional materials, Barenberg is regularly in demand at workshops and music camps throughout the country. He has been on staff at the Telluride and Rocky Grass Academies in Colorado, Steve Kaufman's camp in Tennessee, The Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in Washington, Augusta Heritage in West Virginia, Pinewoods in Massachusetts, and Fiddle and Dance at Ashokan in New York state.

Barenberg currently freelances in Nashville and performs with his own group--The Russ Barenberg Quartet. His 2007 release on Compass Records is described well by music writer Jon Weisberger: “…while ensemble interplay is the foundation of When at Last, its heart and soul ultimately is to be found in Barenberg’s tunes—some dating back to the early 90s, others composed shortly before recording began—and in his glistening playing. Few guitarists so perfectly blend a mastery of roots music traditions with melodic originality, or so finely balance muscularity with delicacy, and each moment of the album is shaped by these artistic dualities…”

Barenberg took up the guitar in his early teens. With Chester County, Pennsylvania as his home, he absorbed the music of such vanguard Americana guitarists as Doc Watson and Clarence White.

“I never thought of pursuing this music as a way to make a living when I was young,” Barenberg said. “I just thought of it as something I was really excited about. One reason would definitely be Clarence White and that whole break free, experimental energy his playing had. That sounded pretty remarkable to me. But that was when I was a teenager.”

From that point on, Barenberg’s career took him to bands that boasted some of the most prestigious string players in the land.

In 1970, while attending Cornell University, he picked with banjo stylists Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka in a bluegrass outfit called Country Cooking. Collaborations with Trischka continued after Barenberg moved to New York. There the two formed Heartlands with fiddler Matt Glaser and Country Cooking guitarist John Miller. Barenberg finished the decade in Boston with fiddler/mandolinist Jay Ungar in the ensemble Fiddle Fever. Their recording of Ashokan Farewell received a new life as part of the soundtrack to the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.

But it was in the ‘80s that the string sounds Barenberg discovered with new pals like dobroist Douglas began to make serious waves. By 1986, Barenberg relocated to Nashville. Almost familial recording projects ensued with Fleck, fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Mark O’Connor, Irish-born singer Maura O’Connell and an instrumental trio with Douglas and bassist Edgar Meyer. The latter toured extensively in the early ‘90s and gave a remarkable Lexington performance with mandolinist Sam Bush at the long-defunct Breeding’s on Main St. In 1993 came Skip, Hop and Wobble, an album that neatly summarized the broad stylistic scope of the trio’s new grass vision.

“We were just having fun,” Barenberg said. “All of us were interested in different kinds of music and played stringed instruments of one sort or another. There were all kinds of experimentation going on. But it wasn’t even so much like we were trying to experiment. We never set out to do that. It was just part of our natural approach to playing music.”

Curiously, Barenberg lived a double life during these years. By night, he picked behind O’Connell or jammed with Douglas and Meyer. By day, he worked in training development and instructional design for the Saturn car company. While such a seemingly removed work environment didn’t curtail his performance life, it cramped his solo recording career a bit.

To celebrate a recent re-entrance into a full-time music career, Barenberg has released the first recording under his own name in nearly 20 years. Titled When at Last, the record boasts a scrapbook of grassy adventures that mix fiddle tunes, guitar/mandolin romps, French folk music, Irish inspiration and even a suggestion of polka. Topping the list is a nimble bit of breezy picking backed by pals Douglas, Duncan and bassist Viktor Krauss called Little Monk. The tune was nominated earlier this year for a Grammy.

“I don’t know why I waited so long to make another record,” Barenberg said. “I had been working this non-music job for such a long time. But that’s really no excuse. It was definitely time to do one.”

Life away from Saturn has also included trips with Tim O’Brien to Ireland for a TV performance project called The Transatlantic Sessions, an ongoing touring collaboration with fellow bluegrass-bred guitarist Bryan Sutton, teaching duties and occasional recording studio session work in Nashville.

Best of all, there is a return performance in Lexington this week to remind string music enthusiasts of what a pioneering musician Barenberg has been all along.

“I don’t know if working a day job has freshened my perspective on the music, really. The music always leads its own life no matter what I’m doing. All I know is it is definitely invigorating and I’m excited to be doing it.

“It just feels like the right thing.”

Russ Barenberg - Cowboy Calypso

Year: 1979
Label: Rounder

Review by Chip Renner
A good album with Andy Statman and Jerry Douglas.

1 Cowboy Calypso
2 Goodbye Eddy Street
3 Gimmicks Ahoy
4 Suave de Samba
5 Cooley's Rest
6 Walking with You
7 Flabston and Chubsby Go South
8 Stringsong
9 You Say You Care
10 You Left the Islands Laughing

carribean cowpoke.
mp3 320kbps | w/ cover

* out-of-print, even japanese import is OOP.

Russ Barenberg - Behind the Melodies

Year: 1983
Label: Rounder

Review by Chip Renner
A very good cast: Tony Trischka, Andy Statman.

1 The Llama's Dance - Barenberg - 5:12
2 Halloween Rehearsal - Barenberg - 4:16
3 Another Prairie - Barenberg - 2:00
4 A Touch of the Hidalgo - Barenberg - 4:27
5 Many Years Ago - Barenberg - 2:19
6 The Cola Calypso - Barenberg - 4:43
7 Without Words - Barenberg - 5:21
8 The Invisible Choir - Barenberg - 2:59
9 For J.L. - Barenberg - 3:07

dance, llama, dance.
mp3 320kbps | w/ cover

* out-of-print


Anonymous said...

This stuff is great. And I love the concept of taking a band of young musicians and then following each artist to see what they went on to do. Great stuff and I can't wait to hear what else is coming. Thanks again!

grocery store feet said...

Absolutely superb set of posts. Really great concept and really amazing content.
Thank you, thank you for this great work.

mjs said...

I have Halloween Rehearsal. It is just the first two Russ records on one disc. If you want to hear it, let me know.

The Irate Pirate said...

oh, I just checked and it looks like you're right mjs; I guess I already had all his albums and didn't know it!

Thanks for setting that straight.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - You are doing a terrific job with these post.

Sonny Walkman said...

Thanks so much for the 2 Russ Barenburgs, I've been after them for ages. THis is a great post you've got going.


Anonymous said...

So much nice posts lately..I thank you!

Jonathan F. King said...

This is great! I own both LPs, purchased on release, but have never done the setup required to digitize them or any of my LPs ... so this is perfect for me.