Virginia native Janie Barnett cut her teeth on bluegrass festivals, church coffeehouses, and the American Folklife Festival. When she met iconic Americana barnstormer and Newgrass pioneer John Hartford at Folklife, so began her love affair with the alternate roots movement. “I couldn’t commit to being a 100-MPH flat-picker, but I fell in love with those sounds. And behind every great song was a renegade twist to be had. That renegade twist is really part of my DNA.” The seeds were planted for a lifelong quest for a hybrid style that favored roots-music instruments, the whimsical storytelling of her favorite author John Steinbeck, and the social passions of one who grew up in the backyard of Washington, D.C.
One can see the roots of this renegade impulse throughout Barnett’s growing up. Socialist grandparents on one side, a newsman father, and a labor advocate mother. Barnett defected from the local high school for boarding school, where, ironically, she found her tribe of outside-the-box musicians. She then defected from the Ivy League to play in a roots and reggae band in New Hampshire and Cambridge, then ultimately defecting from the New England music scene to New York City.
“New York was a mecca for me, as it is for so many. I knew the early folk scene had dissipated, but I figured there was something in the air – or the water – that would drive me towards the music and the tribe I was searching for.“ And then another unlikely turn. Barnett rose in the freelance world, making a name for herself as a smart, precise, and professional chameleon musician, singing on countless film, tv and commercial projects, as well as singing backup for iconic stars like Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion, and Rickie Lee Jones. Appearances on SNL, The Today Show, membership in an elite session musician super-group – these were the bookings of that time. “Success in this world has been very important to me, because I value craft so much. It was gratifying to have that validated. I was asked to sing every style convincingly – pop, blues, rock, jazz. Sound like Linda, they would demand, or Bonnie, or Lucinda, these were singers I had backed up on live gigs. It was an oddly satisfying challenge. It also came at a time when I had to turn down tours, because I was raising a daughter. Disappearing for weeks at a time was not an option I was willing to take.”