There are classic attributes assigned to the “Western” genre in entertainment. Western-themed television shows, movies, and art all tell stories of the 19th century and America’s raw beginnings, replete with war, financial struggle, sickness, and everyday life on the range. With any good era and its treasured artifacts, it is generally frowned upon when individuals attempt to recreate or extract these moments for a “later” audience, years and years after the “original” representations made their debuts.
The same holds true for music. There can’t be a Nirvana after the age of Nirvana…that is, unless the timing is right and the act is honest and offers something new and different. But is that even possible?
Similarly, a musician can’t capture Johnny Cash’s sense of American spirit–no–he or she can only try to come near to what it was–and even if that happens, will it ever be worth comparing the new talent with the mastermind of Cash?
One question though, is if there is more “giving space,” (or “forgiving space”) with genres of music. Will bands ever stop trying to replicate the ’80s dance scene? Probably not. But that’s okay, because some of such bands really do have talent (even though it would be interesting to hear what they would sound like without the ’80s influence).
Enough of the introduction here–the point is clear–bringing back sounds of the past is a difficult and delicate task. There are perhaps even higher expectations from critics because, in some ways, what the artist is trying to create has already been done before.
That said, welcome to the world of Digger Barnes.
Digger Barnes is a German (Hamburg-based) musician who is reinventing Western tunes of the past. He sings of rivers, gold, outlaws, lost loves, anddd somehow he manages to make it all relevant to today, lyrically highlighting the simple beauty in each of the topics of which he sings. His songs are all very cleanly produced too, leaving behind rusty sounds and antiquated methods. Barnes has been playing music under his name since 2005, releasing his latest full-length, Every Story True (Barnes & Quincy, Hometown Caravan), in March of this year. He’s no stranger to the music industry; he also works as a studio and touring musician and has shared stages with Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music, Tom Gabel of Against Me!, Jim Ward of At The Drive-In, Joey Cape of Lagwagon, and Frank Turner, among others.
One might consider Barnes’ music and wonder why a German artist today would want to write songs of America’s past. Furthermore, one might ask how such music could sound authentic and listenable, coming from a native German speaker. But there’s no major German accent that interrupts the storytelling in the songs, and the stories really just sound natural–layered harmonies and all. Perhaps Barnes has a penchant for escapism and Western culture. Maybe he’s a nostalgic old soul who relishes the writings of fellow German Karl May, or maybe he just likes the desolate nature of the American praire. It’s as if Barnes has simply done his research; he knows what works in his genre of music, and he knows what doesn’t. He’s out to do it right.
We emailed Barnes and asked him to confirm if he really is from Hamburg, because it isn’t obvious in his singing voice, and we asked how he chose this particular genre of music. He wrote us back the next day and said the following (the quote is translated):
I was born in Germany and I live in Hamburg, but I prefer to travel the world through my music. The figure of the ‘lonesome cowboy’ really fascinated me since childhood. Musically I see myself as a songwriter. What people take away from these songs then, is always a new question. My roots are in punk and hardcore–that kind of music doesn’t really interest me so much anymore–but it was through that music that I learned all the important parts of how to survive as a D.I.Y. artist. Visual artist Pencil Quincy and I work closely together as a team.
The artist behind the Digger “look” is Barnes’ label partner who he mentioned above, Pencil Quincy. The two run Barnes & Quincy together and Quincy handles much of the artistic direction. The centerpiece of the Barnes’ website is a Western-looking diner called Digger’s Diamond that has an old-fashioned giant neon sign, and with each click to visit other tabs on the page, the time of day and weather around the diner changes. Quincy has produced beautiful images for Barnes’ album art, flyers, and music videos, such as the video below for the song “Long Way”:
Since 2009, Quincy has also managed the visual aspects of Barnes’ live shows. “The Diamond Road Show” features projections created by the artist in real time from his miniature trick-film-studio known as “The Magic Machine” that he carries with him on tour. The Magic Machine creates projections with a record player, video camera, lights and mirrors that animate paintings, tiny figurines and other small details.
Digger Barnes and Pencil Quincy are currently on tour in Germany and the Czech Republic, playing shows through November. Although it seems pretty hard for Europeans to make it over to America today, we sure hope that Barnes will make a visit soon, and come face to face with the pictures he paints in his songs.