Interview | FFS 5 with Alan Barnosky

Photo by Ross Langdon Page

Durham, NC (by way of Michigan) flatpicking guitarist and songwriter Alan Barnosky expertly crafts Americana songs that detail the life of a modern troubadour. His critically acclaimed debut Old Freight, which was noted as being “a fantastic album, full of clever guitar work, excellent vocal performances, and punchy arrangements“ put him on the map as an artist to watch. 

Since its release he’s been a festival and showcase regular, appearing at the 2018 IBMA Songwriter Showcase, receiving an honorable mention at the Telluride Troubadour Contest, showcasing at the Southeast Regional Folk Alliance conference, and opening for genre mainstays The Steel Wheels, Robbie Fulks, and Charley Crockett. In addition to his work as a solo artist, he has performed with bands at the IBMA World of Bluegrass, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and Bristol Rhythm and Roots. 2020 sees Barnosky poised to build on this momentum with the release of his sophomore work, Lonesome Road, an EP that spotlights instrumental prowess while remaining true to the honest songwriting, authentic delivery, and no-nonsense production for which he has become recognized.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I grew up outside the Detroit area, and was introduced to the guitar at age 12 through my older brother. He went off to college later that year, and when he came back home for my birthday he gave me a handwritten instruction book with chord shapes, scales, and a few songs to learn. I still have the book! Check it out:

Throughout my teens I continued to play guitar and took music very seriously, transitioning through a number of musical phases until I discovered bluegrass near the end of high school. I was drawn to the energy, authenticity, and musical prowess of the style. Throughout college I kept playing guitar, but also started learning upright bass and began playing with some bluegrass bands in the area.

I moved from Michigan to North Carolina in 2012, and fit my most essential belongings into a 4-door car. Unfortunately, an upright bass would have taken up just about the entire car, so that got left behind – but I did squeeze in an old acoustic dreadnought guitar. Living in a new place without a bass or bandmates to play music with, I starting flatpicking, writing, and working on my singing voice. That experience eventually paved the way to songwriting and playing guitar more seriously.

As an artist, how do you define success?

For me as a musician, success means being able to tap into my creative energy. I feel successful after realizing I have just written a good new song, or just improvised a memorable instrumental break, or have just connected with an audience on a deep level. Noticing that creative energy is probably the best feeling I can get as a musician. It is the reward for all the hard work, and it is the motivation to keep going. That creative spark is fleeting, but it appears occasionally and it fuels me. Being able to squeak out a living playing music is just icing on the cake.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

I do think it is easier now than ever to make a sustainable living in the music business. Technology has broken down a lot of barriers. But in the same sense independent musicians are now responsible for nearly all aspects of their business and the whole thing can be dizzying – booking, traveling, releasing music, getting press, promoting shows, contacting fans, keeping all the paperwork straight. We have to wear all these different hats and it really eats into the actual thing we are trying to do, which is make music.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

I got my start as a songwriter about six years ago playing at a little open mic when I lived briefly in Washington DC. The venue was Gypsy Sally’s, a hidden Americana club almost literally underneath the Key Bridge in Georgetown. I had a full-time job and no intention to play music for anything other than fun. My first night there (and one of my first times performing solo) was an incredible experience – my short set went over great and I met a bunch of new friends including the owner who later booked me at the venue several times. I spent many of my nights during my short time in DC at Gypsy Sally’s.

At that time I never would have expected to be doing what I am today. So I’m not sure what is realistic in terms of achievements or successes because opportunities and circumstances and plans can all shift pretty rapidly. Instead, my goals are more focused on maintaining creative momentum: that I will continue to grow and progress as a musician; that playing music regularly will not burn me out; and that my best work lies ahead of me and for a long time to come.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

I love time spent outdoors in nature and solitude, and these long periods outside and alone are probably the best for spurring my creative material. The title track “Lonesome Road” off my upcoming EP was written after returning from a two-month solo bicycle tour in the Blue Ridge, and it recounts the therapeutic effect that solo traveling can have after difficult experiences. The third song on the album, “Ain’t It A Shame,” came to me after returning from backpacking the Vermont Long Trail, and the instrumental “Sawtooth Ridge” is named after an epic stretch of ridgeline along the Appalachian Trail just outside of Roanoke, VA. “Beer Cans & Quarters,” though entirely fictional, tells the story of wandering after hard times to eventually find peace in a new place.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm