Loyal Friends Fuel Fiddler Mike Barnett’s Duets Album and Recovery from Brain Aneurysm
Photo by Stacie Huckeba
The road to release for +1, the new album of duets out today from fiddle virtuoso and songwriter Mike Barnett, was longer than anyone could have imagined.
The songs on +1, first slated for release last September, were recorded over several years, when demanding tour and recording schedules would allow Barnett to collaborate one by one with friends he’d known for a long time, including Sierra Hull, Alex Hargreaves, Sarah Jarosz, Molly Tuttle, and Ricky Skaggs.
But that road took an unexpected bend in July, when Barnett, 31, suffered a brain aneurysm at his home in Nashville. Now the friends with whom he shares the spotlight on +1 are putting their brightest focus on him, offering support as he works on recovering speech, motor skills, and more.
The inspiration behind +1, more than four years in the making, stemmed from Barnett’s love of Darol Anger’s Diary of a Fiddler and Anger’s album with Mike Marshall, The Duo Live: At Home and On the Range. Barnett himself loves performing in a duo and the level of improvisation that accompanies it, growing accustomed to it while living in New York City in the years following his graduation from Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
“It’s one of my favorite contexts to play music in, but it’s a challenging context to record in, especially for a fiddle, which in general, in band context, plays the role of the melodic instrument,” Barnett says in a press release announcing the album. “In a duo context, when another person is soloing, you have to fill out the music in a different way and get creative there. It was something I thought would be nice to write some music specifically for.”
After a few years of living in New York, Barnett moved to Austin when his then-girlfriend, now wife Annalise Ohse got a job there. But he kept in touch with his friends in the Northeast, maintaining musical connections by entering duo contests and traveling back to the region to lay down some of what wound up being the earliest +1 sessions.
One song from those early sessions is “Hollow City,” featuring Jarosz, whom he first crossed paths with at music camps during their teenage years. They reconnected during their college years in Boston, where she attended the New England Conservatory of Music while he attended Berklee. “Hollow City” is one of the songs on +1 he holds most dear, as it centers around letting go of his friends and music community in New York City and moving away without much of a plan, only to realize upon a return visit that the place he once called home wasn’t how he’d remembered it.
“When I returned to the city for the first time on my own, I expected the experience to be somewhat euphoric, but quickly realized it just wasn’t the same, hence the title ‘Hollow City,’” Barnett says in press materials. “Sarah’s voice conveys these emotions beautifully.”
In 2017, “home” shifted back to his native Nashville when Barnett joined Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. There he met and recruited other young pickers like Sierra Hull (featured on the equal parts classical and whimsical “Anna Marie”) and Molly Tuttle (heard on the fiery bluegrass number “Born to Be With You”) to join him on +1.
The album touches on Barnett’s diverse influences as well as those of the entire cast of guest musicians. You can hear them in the jazz-infused “The Breath and the Bow,” featuring Eddie Barbash, a saxophonist best known for his work with Jon Batiste and Stay Human, and “Dexterity” with bassist Jeff Picker, and in the high, lonesome sounds of “Little Sisters Medley,” featuring Skaggs on an old-timey rendition of The Stanley Brothers’ “Little Maggie.” And they’re in the high-strung bluegrass of “Hybrid Hoss,” a re-interpretation of Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss” featuring banjo player Cory Walker, and the soothing Celtic sounds of “Just Married,” starring Scottish harp player Maeve Gilchrist.
“It’s classic Mike to have these big, ambitious ideas that he always manages to follow through with,” said Jarosz. “I recorded my two songs early on in the process and had forgotten about them until Mike approached me a couple years later to say he was finishing it up. I was, and still am, so excited for him.”
The Power of Community
Barnett and Ohse were doing some tidying up at home last July when everything changed.
“He was trying to talk but words weren’t coming out,” Ohse explains in a call alongside Barnett from his rehabilitation facility in Chicago. “At first I thought he was joking around because he has a goofy personality, but I quickly realized something far more serious was happening.”
Ohse asked if Barnett needed an ambulance, to which he responded “yes,” the last phrase he was able to verbalize as part of his face went numb.
Unable to ride in the ambulance or meet him in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions, Ohse went to the home of Jarosz and her partner, Picker, where together the three tried to process what had happened.
“It was a surreal moment because we’d all just spent time celebrating Mike’s birthday together at one of Nashville’s parks during a beautiful, sunny afternoon a couple of days before,” says Jarosz.
A few weeks later, Picker, who plays bass alongside Barnett in Kentucky Thunder, helped to organize a GoFundMe to assist Barnett and Ohse with the costs of the extensive rehab necessary for recovery. Word of the support campaign spread quickly through friends and across the greater acoustic and roots music communities, and the campaign began accumulating donations from people eager to support Barnett on his road to recovery. To date, more than $195,000 has been raised.
Ohse and Barnett teared up the first time they got a glimpse of all the support and well wishes rolling in, she recalls, and it continues to provide them hope as they push on with rehab.
“The support from the music community has been incredible,” Barnett says. “I can hardly believe it.”
Jarosz has been overwhelmed, but not surprised, by the outpouring of love for Barnett, particularly with much of it coming from a music community known for rallying behind its own in times of hardship.
“It shows the power of our acoustic music community and how in a year when it can be so easy to lose hope that there’s still so many good people in the world wanting to help,” she says. “It says a lot not only of our community but also of Mike, who I genuinely believe is one of the best musicians in the world and an even better person.”
Currently seven months into arduous rehab, Barnett has made significant progress in both his speech and muscle memory, though a long road to a full recovery still remains.
“I still can’t move my left hand and fingers, but lately I have been able to make a fist,” Barnett reports. “I’m very hopeful that I’ll be able to return to playing the violin again.”
Ohse posted a video to the GoFundMe page in late February sharing Barnett’s story and the improvements he’s made so far.
With an encouraging prognosis for an eventual full recovery, Ohse, Barnett, and Compass Records felt it was time to put +1 back on the calendar, both in celebration of how far he’s come and to encourage him as the work toward full strength continues.
“It just felt like the right time for us to get this music out to the world,” says Ohse. “Mike has recovered to a point where he’s able to be a part of his release.”
The album’s release also serves as a reminder of Barnett’s immense talent and an example to others of how, even through the most unexpected and tragic of circumstances, it’s possible to push through.
“I’m so proud of Mike and the fact that the world is finally getting to hear this record,” says Jarosz. “I’m glad that he’s able to be a part of its release and use it as a notch in his belt to help him feel a little stronger every day. Regardless of his accident, Mike is a fantastic musician with an impressive body of work, and this album only adds to that.”