When Dave Barnes first showed up on the music scene 12 years ago, he was the guy hitting the college circuit with limitless energy and an equally unrestrained expectation for the future. There were songs to be penned, tours to be booked and a whole world of experiences to be seized.
Since then, the singer-songwriter has written and released seven albums, played hundreds of cities each year, received Grammy and CMA nominations for Blake Shelton’s cut of his song “God Gave Me You,” become a father and formed deeper relationships in the industry than his 23-year-old self could have dared hope.
Turning 35 this year, Barnes is in a season of both nostalgia and reality about what it means to be a traveling musician, and those reflections have become the life and breath of his eighth full-length release, Golden Days. “It kind of tells a story of beginning something, where you are now and, as the season changes, the things you look back on,” he says.
Having recorded his 2012 Razor & Tie Records release, Stories to Tell, in LA with renowned producer John Fields, Barnes is stepping closer to home for his new independently released project, co-producing with multi-Grammy nominated Ed Cash in Nashville and giving his thoughts time to simmer and take shape.
“I’ve tried as I’ve gotten older to make records like they’re chapters in a book, to try to really capture what I’m thinking about in that season,” he explains. “This record, to me, is probably one of the most interesting subject-wise. It’s a bit of a retrospective.”
Golden Days opens with the lively and optimistic “Twenty-Three,” a song that captures the essence of the early years when Barnes and musician friends like Matt Wertz and Andy Davis were “young and wild and free” and “dreaming about the possibilities” of their futures.
Following a loose chronology, Golden Days closes on a note of raw reflection with “Hotel Keys,” a song Barnes originally wrote with and for David Nail but found himself connecting to personally. “‘Hotel Keys’ is really about when this dream turns into a job,” he says truthfully. “The fairy dust starts to wear off – it becomes more work than play. Basically, it’s wishing you could go back to when this dream was more than just a pocket of hotel keys.”
Though he’s refreshingly candid about the realities of the road, when Barnes sits back to survey his career so far, the emotion that rises to the surface is one of immense gratitude, expressed on his favorite track and the first single from the new record, a song called “Good.”
The piano-led ballad finds Barnes in his sweet spot, taking in the blessings of his everyday life – the sunrise, his wife laughing in the kitchen, little footsteps on the stairs and even the wrong turns and heartaches that have allowed him to recognize the gifts for what they are.
Between those bookends, the 11-track record unfolds with vibrant and diverse tunes like the sultry Lucie Silvas duet, “Little Civil War,” which pushes and pulls with the beautiful tension of a Bonnie Raitt refrain, the danceable “Something More” and “Heartbroken Down,” an upbeat yet bluesy number about missing a love.
When asked what times has taught him about songwriting, Barnes points to the value of a sentiment. He says he’s come to understand the amount of time and care it takes to truly unearth one and express it.
“Maybe it’s like this,” he begins. “At the beginning of your career, it’s like you’ve been willed this huge plot of land full of songs sitting beneath the surface. Every time you dig your shovel in, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this cool little thing – I bet this is valuable.’ And 12 years into a career you’ve dug up so much of that ground, but every now and then, deeper and deeper below, you find something that’s significant – something that’s worth a lot more. You hit your shovel to it and realize, this is going to take me months to unearth. It’s worth it, but it’s going to be lots of work.”
Having set himself to that work for more than a decade, Barnes has discovered many of these fragile and precious pieces, but unlike when he was first starting out, he’s more intentional now, careful to give these insights the time to develop before attempting to fully grasp them. “When you’re younger, you can sort of break those things in half in excitement,” he reflects.
While inspiration often comes as the result of time and work, Barnes says nothing has opened him up to a new realm of creativity so much as being a father to his now two-year-old son.
“It’s like God just takes a piece of your heart, pulls it out of your chest and puts legs on it,” he describes. “It’s affected everything. It’s been this really great introduction into this new part of myself that I didn’t know. It’s like a whole new array of colors that you get introduced to as you sort of paint these things … like here are 3,000 new colors.”
And he isn’t keeping that inspiration to himself. An artist loved for his approachable and often hilarious nature, Barnes is actively involved in building into the Nashville community and using his experiences to help others however he can. From spearheading a monthly gathering of artists to mentoring younger musicians, he lives by the question, “What good is what you know unless you can share it with other people?”
“Now that I’m here more, I’d love to feel like I’m still involved in people’s lives,” he says. Balancing the realities of his life, career, family and fans, he’s finding the harmony between writing and recording in Nashville and being out on the road playing shows.
“It’s not like starting over, but it’s kind of like starting over,” he explains. “You’ve been through round one of what you do, and now you’re getting to where you’re not going to be out playing 200 shows anymore because you can’t.”
In some ways, life has undeniably changed for Dave Barnes since those early years running the college circuit. He’s matured, grown up even. He’s not 23 anymore, but anyone who knows him will tell you this: 12 years into this thing, he’s still full of limitless energy and an unrestrained expectation about the future.
“As much as it’s terrifying,” he concedes, “it’s kind of the land of promise, because who knows what’s gonna happen?”