By David Templeton | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
If there’s one thing a premier fiddler knows about, it’s the art of improvisation—also known as the ability to always expect the unexpected. For Grammy nominee Mike Barnett (a regular member of Ricky Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder and the David Grisman Quintet), however, the unexpected came in two waves. First, when the pandemic forced a shutdown of his touring plans. And second, when he suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage in late July, at his home in Nashville.
After a pair of lengthy surgeries to remove a sizable clot in his brain—apparently the result of a congenital arteriovenous malformation he’d been unknowingly living with his whole life—Barnett found that it was, indeed, time to improvise. His plans to release a new album of duets in late 2020 were put on hold as he redirected his energies into full-time recovery and physical therapy.
Barnett’s wife, fiddler and teacher Annalise Ohse, along with bassist Jeff Picker, a longtime friend, quickly set up the Mike Barnett Recovery Fund, a GoFundMe campaign to support the fiddler’s recovery. Barnett’s remarkable progress is being chronicled in a number of stirring videos and reports on the campaign’s webpage.
And now, nearly one year after its planned release, Barnett’s delayed duets album, titled +1, is set to be released by Compass Records.
Years in the making, +1 features collaborations with an array of performers representing a spectrum of styles and musical forms. In addition to duets with Skaggs and Picker, Barnett is joined on the project—which was completed before his medical event—by guitarist Stash Wyslouch, multi-instrumentalist Ric Robertson, mandolinist Dominick Leslie, singer-songwriter-guitarist Sarah Jarosz, Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, banjo-guitar master Molly Tuttle, cellist Nathaniel Smith, singer-instrumentalist Sierra Hull, saxophonist Eddie Barbash, banjoist Cory Walker, and cross-genre violinist Alex Hargreaves.
In a recent email exchange, Barnett—with the keyboard assistance of Ohse—described his excitement about the upcoming release of the album, his approach to pairing tunes with musical partners, and what he’s learned through it all about the power of collaboration.
Let’s start with the concept of the album. Each track features you plus one other player. What made you decide to do a duo album?
I’ve always loved duo playing. When I was 19, my good friend Alex Hargreaves and I traveled to Europe. We made absolutely no plans, but one thing led to another and we sort of pieced together a tour, playing duo gigs in Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Paris. It was so fun, just two fiddles. That trip was one of the best three weeks of my life.
How did the album turn from an idea into an actual recording project?
When I followed my girlfriend (now wife) to Austin, there really wasn’t much there for me musically. So I started writing and recording as a way to stay sane. Recording duos was a way for me to travel and see friends without having to coordinate too many schedules. Making a duo album just made sense.
The album features people you’ve worked with before, and some you haven’t. How did you select these specific collaborators?
Every person on this album is a good friend of mine, each from different phases of my life. I originally just called it Duos with Friends, but +1 has a better ring to it.
Most of the time I chose the collaborator based on the song. For example, when writing “Hollow City” and “Righteous Bell,” I knew right away that I wanted to record those with Sarah Jarosz. Same with Sierra Hull on “Anna Marie.” Other times I wrote or chose a song based on the collaborator. I knew I wanted Eddie on the album, but it took a while to figure out what we should record. We started with some old-time tunes, recorded a few, but none felt right. I was racking my brain to figure it out. Maybe jazz?
Two years went by and it was actually Sarah Jarosz who suggested I go in a totally different direction and do something Irish-inspired. It clicked. A day later I had written this four-part pseudo-Irish medley, “Breath and the Bow.” It was really fun getting Eddie’s perspective. Some parts of the medley just didn’t play well for the saxophone. He made a few tweaks here and there and that was it. It came together fairly quickly.
That’s an example of a collaboration working out easily. Were there any big challenges, or unexpected surprises, that you encountered during the project?
“Higher Ground” was really tricky to transcribe into a duo. I wrote it back in 2015 in Brooklyn on a beat-up tenor guitar with only two strings. At first, I thought it might be a good fit to play with Molly Tuttle. She and I took a whack at it, but it just wasn’t the right choice. We ended up recording a version of “Born to Be with You” instead. I figured I’d put “Higher Ground” back in my pocket and save it for another project. But then I thought of Ric Robertson. His unique style just made it work! It took me a while to figure out my part. I re-recorded many times before I landed on something I liked. Unlike the Irish medley, this one took a while to come together.
What did you learn from recording with so many different artists?
I learned that I have really great friends who kindly humor my OCD. Sometimes I can get pretty “in my head” during a session.
Your fans will definitely want to know how you are doing after your medical emergency, and what your recovery has been like. What role has your wife, also a violinist, played in your recovery?
It’s hard. Initially, I couldn’t walk, talk, or move my left arm or hand. Now, I’m walking, and my speech is improving, but my left arm and hand are being stubborn. There is still time. It’s only been about seven months and I’m still making gains. When they start working again, I’ll most definitely enlist my Suzuki violin–teacher wife to get my fingers back in shape! Annalise has been my beacon of light, going to all my therapy sessions, and helping me out with all my exercises. I love her so much. This whole situation still shocks me. It doesn’t feel real. How did this happen to me? The whole thing is tragic and unbearable—but at least I know I am not alone.
What is the most important thing you want people to take away from this album, the way it was recorded, or what it means for you at this stage of your life and career?
Simple. Make music with your friends. At this stage in my post-hemorrhagic life, I’m so glad to have this special collection of recordings. Whatever you do, wherever you are, keep making music.