In the 1990s and 2000s, the hard-to-pin-down eclectic style that went under the labels of new acoustic music and progressive bluegrass grew in popularity, reaching top chart levels with releases by musicians such as Allison Krauss, Bela Fleck, and the young California band Nickel Creek. The music had an even longer history, however, dating back to the experimental days of the 1960s and 1970s, when musicians began to combine the traditional bluegrass music of the Appalachian states with other styles. One of those musicians, and one of the largely unheralded founders of new acoustic music, was guitarist Russ Barenberg. As a solo artist, as a composer, and as a member of various influential ensembles, Barenberg has pushed the boundaries of bluegrass while remaining true to the traditional orientation and melodic history of the genre.
Born on October 8, 1950, Barenberg grew up in suburban Chester County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. He heard Southern country and blues musicians like Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt, who became popular during the folk revival of the early 1960s, and at age 13 he took up the guitar himself. Another important influence, in terms of both flatpicking guitar style (flatpicking is playing guitar with a pick) and innovative attitude, was Maine-born, California-based guitarist Clarence White, who infused new rhythms into bluegrass with his band, the Kentucky Colonels, and shaped the styles of several young string players.
In 1968 Barenberg enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and there he found other young musicians interested in traditional acoustic American styles. He met progressive banjo stylist Pete Wernick, and while still students at Cornell, the two joined banjoist-guitarist Tony Trischka, fiddler Kenny Kosek, and bassist John Miller (whose brother Alan had given Barenberg his first guitar lessons) to form Country Cooking. The band recorded two all-instrumental albums, 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals (1971) and Barrel of Fun (1973), and also recorded an album with traditional bluegrass mandolinist Frank Wakefield, but its influence is perhaps best measured by the fact that all five of its members went on to solo careers in music.
Country Cooking broke up in 1975, and Barenberg bounced in and out of music, playing electric guitar for a time in a jazz fusion band called Carried Away. He then reunited with Trischka and John Miller to form a new progressive bluegrass band, Heartlands, which was based in New York City. Barenberg was signed to the Rounder label, and in 1979 he released his debut album, Cowboy Calypso. The album's title track, with Barenberg's guitar weaving a complex melody over deceptively relaxed tropical rhythms, gave an idea of Barenberg's stylistic diversity, enhanced on Cowboy Calypso by the presence of bluegrass-klezmer crossover mandolinist Andy Statman and Nashville dobro (resonator guitar) player Jerry Douglas.
Douglas, another key shaper of progressive bluegrass, became a frequent Barenberg collaborator in the 1980s and beyond, as Barenberg appeared in Douglas's 1982 LP Fluxedo. Douglas returned the favor, joining Trischka and Statman as part of the backing group on Barenberg's second solo album, Behind the Melodies (1983), which featured a wide variety of percussion instruments. No matter how far Barenberg diverged stylistically from bluegrass, however, traditional melodies and structures always remained part of his stylistic mix. In Boston, where he lived from 1979 to 1986, he was active as a musician in the city's large contra dance scene. He also performed with the stylistically varied but traditionally oriented band Fiddle Fever and was heard on two of the group's albums. One Fiddle Fever tune featuring Barenberg, "Ashokan Farewell," later became familiar from its use in the Ken Burns-directed documentary The Civil War.
In 1986, Barenberg moved to Nashville hoping to work as a session musician. He was raising a family by this time and wanted to cut down on the rigors of a touring schedule. He did appear on a variety of Nashville releases in the late 1980s, notably those of Irish-turned-country chanteuse Maura O'Connell. But he also worked outside of music. "I wasn't deeply enough into pop music that I could thrive in that world," Barenberg explained in a biography appearing on the Web site of the Compass Records label. "So I took a job that allowed me to have a predictable income, that let me be at home more while my kids were growing up, and that allowed me to do the music I really wanted to do without having to feign interest in stuff I didn't care about just to put together a living."
Those selective projects included a freewheeling, eclectic, all-instrumental trio album Barenberg made with two close collaborators: Skip, Hop & Wobble, released in 1994 on the Sugar Hill label, featured Douglas along with country-classical crossover bassist Edgar Meyer. Among Barenberg's compositional contributions was the meditative "Hymn to Ordinary Motion," while Douglas evoked French silent film comedian Jacques Tati with some well-placed wrong notes in "The Travels of Mr. Hulot." The Atlanta Journal & Constitution noted that the three musicians "find room for plenty of heart and soul between the hot licks."
In the late 1990s and early 2000s Barenberg continued to do occasional session work, appearing on the solo album Stealing Second by Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile in 1997. He also toured with younger acoustic artists such as guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Aubrey Haynie, and multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien. Barenberg became involved with the Scottish television program Transatlantic Sessions, which featured collaborations among musicians from the United States, Canada, and the British Isles; excerpts from these programs were packaged and released in compact disc format in 2006, and a new group of Transatlantic Sessions programs was recorded in 2007. Barenberg also toured France with two New England-based musicians, fiddler Ruthie Dornfeld and accordionist Jeremiah McLane.
That year, Barenberg released his fourth solo album, When at Last, on the Compass label. With ten original compositions and one traditional tune, the album featured Douglas and another longtime Nashville-based Barenberg collaborator, fiddler Stuart Duncan, along with Dornfeld and McLane. Stephanie P. Ledgin of Sing Out! felt that Barenberg "continues to astound with his creativity and dexterity, demonstrating his guitar and mandolin finesse on When At Last, as well as his understated talent as a composer." As one of the musical figures who first pushed bluegrass in a progressive direction, Barenberg still had fresh ideas to offer in the genre nearly four decades later.
For the Record …
Born on October 8, 1950, in Chester County, PA. Education: Attended Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Joined band Country Cooking, c. 1970; performed in jazz band Carried Away and bluegrass band Heartlands, late 1970s; released debut album, Cowboy Calypso, 1979; performed in bluegrass band Fiddle Fever, early 1980s; released Behind the Melodies, 1983; worked as session musician; with Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer, released Skip, Hop & Wobble, 1994; released When at Last, 2007.
Addresses: Record company—Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212.
Cowboy Calypso, Rounder, 1979.
Behind the Melodies, Rounder, 1983.
Halloween Rehearsal, Rounder, 1987.
Moving Pictures, Rounder, 1988.
(With Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer) Skip, Hop & Wobble, Sugar Hill, 1994.
Time at Last, Compass, 2007.
Albany Times-Union (Albany, NY), September 12, 1994, p. C4.
Atlanta Journal & Constitution, March 8, 1996.
Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, KY), July 20, 2007.
Sing Out!, Winter 2008, p. 122.
Washington Post, January 5, 1984, p. D4.
"About Russ Barenberg," Compass Records, http://www.compass.com/russ-barenberg (March 1, 2008).
"Russ Barenberg," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 1, 2008).
"Russ Barenberg Bio," Russ Barenberg Official Web site, http://www.russbarenberg.com (March 1, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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