By Brian Tucker
Alan Barnosky grew up in the suburbs outside of Detroit. Musically speaking, it’s better known for Motown, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, and Iggy and the Stooges than for bluegrass and folk music. But Barnosky found it at the local library.
“This was in the early 2000s before music was easily accessible online,” Barnosky said. “But as a teenager I absorbed all music. I would scour their CD rack.”
He grew obsessed and he says many albums he discovered there remain dear to him – Bill Monroe and Doc Watson’s live duet recordings and Old & in the Way’s That High Lonesome Sound. The genre consistently feels familiar, providing a sense of comfort in different ways – nostalgia, home, and sometimes protest. His describes it as raw and honest – unfiltered music.
“I can’t put my finger exactly on what draws me in and that may be one of the reasons why it did, and continues to do so.”
Before turning thirteen years old Barnosky decided to learn guitar, something his older brother was already doing. His brother handwrote a guitar instruction book for him, focusing on chord shapes, scales, and some songs to learn (he still has the book). His education furthered playing in bands growing up. But leaving Michigan in 2012 he went solo, learning the flat-picking style of guitar and worked on writing songs, his singing – something he didn’t grow up doing, and becoming comfortable performing alone.
“I didn’t feel confident with my voice and avoided singing whenever I could. That changed when I moved and didn’t know any musicians. I started working on my voice by recording myself, listening back, and cringing at what I heard. But each time I would find little spots that I liked and would focus on mimicking those. I would then re-record, and each time usually got a bit better. This process helped me learn a lot about my voice. Honestly, I feel like I just sing in a way that works best for the voice that I have.”
Relocating to Washington, D.C. he found a home away from home on Tuesday nights at Gypsy Sally’s, spending time with friends and performing at the venue’s open mic night. He memorialized it in song, placing “Gypsy Sally’s” on 2017 album Old Freight.
“Gypsy Sally’s” was probably the easiest song to write. I played the song at other venues and was surprised when the audience resonated with it. I continue to be surprised when people tell me it is one of their favorites.”
Moving to Durham four years ago he helped form Counterclockwise String Band and also continued playing solo. Putting together storyteller-driven material for Old Freight he recorded live at Greg Elkins’ studio in Raleigh, N.C. The album is immediate, sounding clean and crisp, and feels like Barnosky is in the room with you. It’s wonderful, a mix of lively material (“I Heart Mountains,” “Bowling Green”), and haunted (“Childhood Ghosts,” “Stranger”). Half are Barnosky on guitar and vocals and the other five accompanied by Robert Thornhill on mandolin and vocal harmony.
“Greg was amazing to work with. Greg set both of us up in the same room with a handful of smartly arranged microphones and hit record. What you hear on the record is what Robert and I played together in that room. Having these be my songs and my funds made it especially nerve wracking. But looking back it was the most gratifying project I’ve done.”
Additional Q&A with Alan Barnosky
Are you by nature, a storyteller?
Barnosky: I’m not sure if I’m much of a storyteller by nature. But I do think of being a musician and a songwriter as an extension of that. It allows me an avenue to open up a bit and tell the stories that I otherwise might not.
Did you gravitate to Durham’s music scene quickly?
Barnosky: I’ve been in Durham four years, and the music scene in the area is one of my favorite parts about being here. Shortly after moving I met up with some musicians and we formed Counterclockwise String Band. We still play regularly together and they are some of my closest friends. While I feel like I did connect with the scene quickly it is always expanding and I continue to meet amazing local musicians all the time.
Is geography important to your writing? Did you notice changes after moving from D.C. to North Carolina?
Barnosky: There are a lot of mysterious factors that go into the creative process, and geography is indeed one of them. I think my writing did change when I’ve moved from place to place, though I have a hard time understanding why or how. Creativity is an incredibly difficult thing to understand, and in my case I’ll just accept that creative inspiration whenever it decides to crop up..
Are you as comfortable solo as playing in a band?
Barnosky: I grew up playing in bands and it wasn’t until 2012 when I moved away from my home state that I started playing solo. I was in a new place and didn’t know the local musicians and had an old Washburn acoustic guitar. So I started to teach myself flat-picking, worked on my singing, and started writing songs. I had dabbled with all those things before but had never taken it too seriously. Playing in front of people solo was terrifying at first. Now I am as comfortable playing solo as I am with a band, if not more so, though the two are very different. I am grateful to be able to do a good bit of each now.
Was the idea of making a solo album an easy or daunting prospect?
Barnosky: It was pretty terrifying. I had recorded in studios in the past but it was always for somebody else’s project and on somebody else’s budget. Having these be my songs and my funds made it especially nerve wracking. But looking back it was the most gratifying project I’ve done.
Old Freight was released a year ago. Do you look at it differently?
Barnosky: Absolutely. Over time the meanings of these songs fluctuate and change for me. I think that speaks to the fact that music can mean very different things to different people, and I see no problem with this.
Was there a song that you struggled with getting right?
Barnosky: Songs that I struggle with rarely make the final cut. In fact “Gypsy Sally’s” was probably the easiest song to write on the record. It was initially written as a joke for friends that I hung out with every Tuesday at the Gypsy Sally’s open mic in Washington, D.C. Later I played the song at other venues and was surprised when the audience resonated with it. I decided to put it on the record because, as you say, it is a piece of my history, and I continue to be surprised when people tell me it is one of their favorites.
Can you talk about “Childhood Ghosts”? I think it’s my favorite, the lyrics about “feeding the beast” and “believing what I’d live and breath.” Great song.
Barnosky: A few years ago I was going through a bit of a dark time personally when some tragic events started going on in the news that made me realize how fortunate I was. I realized how I had been living selfishly, devoting all of my time and energy toward my personal ends. I also felt like I was a cog in a machine that I didn’t agree with.
As children we often have visions of who we will be when we are older, and in my case those visions included putting others first and working for a greater good. I realized I had lost sight of what was most important to me. While “Childhood Ghosts” is a dark song I do find it to be hopeful as well.