Elwood H. Smith
Death at the Circus (48)

Death at the Circus (47)

George Barnes, Country Jazzman
I grew up in Alpena, a small town in northern Michigan, many years before television had a grip on the nation. Alpena was some 300 miles north of Detroit, so we depended on our local radio station, WATZ, to bring us the news of the world. But it was the music that caught my ear. Local radio stations in the 1940s featured a wide variety of musical styles, from big bands like Benny Goodman to the pop music of the day. WATZ broadcast an abundance of Western Swing and more mainstream Nashville country--known back then as Hillbilly Music. I learned to play the guitar when I was about 15 years old and many of my friends found it natural to tune in to the new language of Rock & Roll. I tried to play rock guitar, but couldn’t get a handle on the solid backbeat that was so important to the genre. The sound of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis was in the air, but I was infused with the bouncy 4/4 swing and hillbilly rhythm I’d grown up with. Then one day, as I was digging through the bargain bin at the local Walgreen store, I spotted a 99 cent LP called "Country Jazz" on the obscure ColorTone label. The guitarist featured was some guy named George Barnes. I was a fan of Les Paul (and in love with Mary Ford) and Chet Atkins was all over the place, but George Barnes? I carried the LP home and it became the most exciting and pivotal album of my life. “Country Jazz” has long been out of print, but it is now available thanks to the dedication and hard work of his daughter, Alexandra Leh and her mother, Evelyn Barnes. Most of the tunes on the album are traditional fiddle tunes, but the arrangements take them all into the stratosphere. George’s guitar playing is completely original—his style is unlike any other guitar player in the world. It’s hard to believe that, although he was one of the busiest and most highly regarded recording session guitarists and arrangers throughout the 1950s and well into the ‘60s, Barnes still hovers somewhat under the radar in the world of jazz. Perhaps the release of this fantastic long out-of-print album will finally bring this master guitarist the recognition he deserves. I can say this with certainty: “George Barnes: Country Jazzman” is one of a small handful of guitar CDs I'd toss into my bag of treasures if I had to make one of those “desert Island” selections.
You can buy a copy here:
You’ll not only get the complete Country Jazz album, copied from a pristine copy of the original LP, you’ll also get bonus tracks, personal anecdotes, photos and lots more.
A very young George Barnes in front of The Chelsea Hotel in Chicago. (Used with permission from The George Barnes Legacy Collection.)

Evelyn and George Barnes at photo shoot for “To Fred Astaire with Love” album cover – RCA Records, New York, February 1975 (Used with permission from The George Barnes Legacy Collection.)

Here I am in 1958, when I still imagined myself playing one day like George Barnes. My father made this guitar using Carvin guitar hardware. My first electric. It weighed a ton and had a neck like a baseball bat.

Death at the Circus (46)
Detail from Death at the Circus #46

Death at the Circus #46 (Full Drawing)

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