Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Michael Barnett has always had a special place in his heart for bluegrass and country music. After picking up the violin at age four, he went on to seriously study the fiddle with his first instructor, the Director of Vanderbilt’s Fiddling Program at the Blair School of Music, Crystal Plohman, at the age of ten. Five years, one album, and many fiddle camps later, Barnett was introduced to the legendary “Mr. Mandolin” Jesse McReynolds, and soon joined his outfit, Jesse and his Virginia Boys, playing regular weekend performances at the Grand Ole Opry. “Touring around on Jesse’s bus at such a young age was a very humbling experience and really brought the music and legacy of Jim and Jesse alive for me,” says Mike of his time as a Virginia Boy. And oh, was the music alive in Barnett’s playing: that same year, at just fifteen years of age, he became the youngest instructor ever to teach at the Fiddle School at Vanderbilt University.
Jesse’s pioneering spirit continued to influence Barnett’s style even after he relocated to Massachusetts. He quickly befriended Boston based mandolinist, Joe Walsh, who introduced him to one of New England’s renowned progressive bluegrass bands, Northern Lights. Together, Barnett and Walsh toured with Northern Lights and recorded “One Day,” the band’s final album, in 2007. Through that project, Mike met folk singer Jonathan Edwards, who later invited him to record on his project “My Love Will Keep,” adding to Barnett’s growing list of collaborations. One of those collaborations was with banjoist Gordon Stone, known for teaching and recording banjo with Phish’s Mike Gordon, who helped Mike Barnett to hone his improvisation and performance talents. Their efforts weren’t in vain, with their 2006 album, “Rhymes with Orange,” winning Vermont’s Album of the Year Award.
A few years and many connections later, Barnett met Tony Trischka, one of the most influential banjo players in roots music, and had the great honor of touring with Tony on his “Double Banjo Bluegrass” project and “Territory.” Through the “Double Banjo” project, Barnett shared the stage with the great Bela Fleck, comedian/banjoist Steve Martin, and Greg Liszt, the banjoist of Crooked Still/Bruce Springsteen fame. Soon after, Greg and Mike conceived The Deadly Gentlemen, an Americana band that allowed Mike to push the limits of tradition, incorporating new influences into his constantly improving playing. This led to a spot as fiddler of the David Grisman Sextet, in which Barnett plays, filling the shoes of past DG artists, including Vassar Clemens and Darol Anger. In between tours, Barnett attends Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he currently resides, and is thankful for the chance to play and write with some of the finest musicians of this generation’s acoustic music scene.
His most recent project is the exciting creation and release of his newest album, “One Song Romance.” With the August 2014 release of his first solo album since he was 15 years old, Barnett is poised to burst on the scene as a solo artist, showing off not only his immense skills on the fiddle, but his impressive song-writing chops as well. The twelve track album combines traditional bluegrass roots with the progressive Northeastern “smarty-grass” style, stemming from Barnett’s long-time studying and collaboration with Boston-based musicians. The opening track “It’ll Be Alright” features a driving fiddle line underneath an ethereal vocal blend of Barnett and Aoife O’Donovan, the former Crooked Still songstress who has now launched a solo career of her own. The following track “Change Her Mind” features the talented Tim O’Brien and O’Donovan on vocals, but Barnett’s poignant opening solo and fiery licks solidify his place as the star of the track. The album shows a wide range, spanning from traditional fiddle tunes to new grass originals, and establishes Barnett as one of the most exciting emerging bluegrass artists of his generation.