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Photo By Laura Roberts
Jamie Barnes

JAMIE BARNES - RECALIBRATED AND READY

By Tim Roberts

From an unproduced screenplay, typewritten and bound in thick red cardboard, found in a mildewy chest full of legal pads, binders full of loose-leaf paper (every page filled with handwriting as precise as a blueprint), old roadmaps from service stations lost to time and multiple company mergers, that was in an upstairs closet belonging to an old man known by his neighbors only as Mr. Leo.

1. EXT. NIGHT

FADE IN on CLOSE UP of a row of white crosses backlit by a plump, low-hanging moon. There's a flicker of light on the right edge of the frame. The sound of a downshifting car engine rumbles OFFSCREEN. Camera PANS slowly. The flicker grows brighter. It is the glow from the licking flames of a car on fire on the edge of the road. Camera DOLLYS IN slowly toward the car fire. The car heard off-creen has slowed past the burning one to a MAN who has stepped into the frame, waving his hands frantically.

2.        EXT. NIGHT

ANGLE on MAN approaching driver's side of car. One hand holds a black book, a Bible. He shakes his head and grins.

MAN

Whew. Glad you stopped by. I was hoping that you'd pick me up like Elijah. I was just at Graceland and got turned around and. . .

He stops speaking. His grin drops vanishes. He steps back from the car. It slams into gear, peels out with a squeal of rubber on road and drives off into the distance. Camera TILTS UP to reveal dense, tall heaps of ash and a black thick stick of asphalt.

MAN (yelling toward the fading taillights)

Look, I just got turned around. You gotta pick me up. (BEAT, then YELL) Please!

The title on the screenplay's cover page: Hell's Adopted Mile.

"I actually grew up in what I would call a strict, small fundamentalist sort of church," Jamie Barnes admitted. "It was a good foundation for faith. The great thing about it was that they sing with no instruments, all old 18th and 19th century hymns. It can be really beautiful. It was neat growing up and hearing four-part harmony all of the time."

We were talking about his latest release, The Recalibrated Heart, in the living room of my home with my wife and his wife, Kelsey. Reggie, our Beagle, roamed around the table where we sat, panting hard after running around the back yard where she had played with Barnes and his wife as mine took his pictures for the story. We had brought out a leather side chair for him to sit in for a few of the pictures and we placed it under a Bartlett Pear tree in our backyard. He had his banjo. Reggie had stood on her hind legs, her front paws on the chair's seat, her snout titled toward Barnes. A heart-melting request for attention.

The scene of the two of them reminded me of a line from a Peanuts strip that appeared during the final years of its long run, where Charlie Brown says "as soon as a child is born, he or she should be issued a dog and a banjo." Simple music and companionship: a pair of items to insure stability and happiness.

Jamie Barnes

Barnes continued. "The Recalibrated Heart is sort of about finding my own faith, questioning a lot of things that you hold to be true and learn to trust. But when things start to get difficult, you wonder if it's your faith or your parents' faith or the faith of the people you've known all your life."

Only twenty-five years old, slim, with a Parris Island haircut, Crestwood native Jamie Barnes is among the new and numerous crop of young musician entrepreneurs who have outfitted themselves with the computer of their choice, loaded with one of the many professional audio recording and editing programs, a small mixing board, microphones and the smarts to use it all and make quality recordings that rival anything churned out of a studio. So far he's done it successfully with two previous full releases and an EP and their quality was enough to impress a quartet of independent record labels: Silber Records in North Carolina, a Belgian label called Sunday's in Spring, Pink Bullet here in Louisville; and Sonablast in New York City.

"With this record," Barnes said, "I was more interested in making more of a financial impact since I was starting to make music full time. All I was doing before was playing shows and selling CDs."

Jamie Barnes

The music on The Recalibrated Heart is (with one glaring exception) as relaxed as a favorite old sweatshirt, the one you wrap yourself in because it always feels like you're wearing an extra pair of arms that hold you. It also has a spiritual message, one that sounds like it is delivered by a friend you've invited over for coffee.

"A lot of it has to do with faith," Barnes said, "really looking inside yourself and finding you don't really know what you're talking about. I think that if you believe in something, you need to stand firm on it. But there's no shame in raising questions and realizing that there's a whole lot that's bigger than you that you have to dig to find.

"There's no shame in admitting that sometimes you're shaken. Life sucks. Suffering happens. But as long as you can take that and try to go somewhere positive with it, you can find an answer. I think some people take the suffering and the hurt and throw the towel in."

Almost halfway through Recalibrated, Barnes hits one of the shaken places, where the twang- and-fuzzed reverbed guitar and raw rhythm seem like the music from an updated spaghetti Western, in Hell's Adopted Mile. The persona in the song has been abandoned. His sin: assuming he would be swept into heaven aboard a glorious chariot of fire, the same way the prophet Elijah was. Instead, after getting turned away from grace (by his own pride or an external force? The song isn't clear), he now finds himself in a land of burning cars, a fruit stand infested with flies and a gas-station attendant whose eyes roll back into his head like the wheels on a slot machine and more ash heaps than the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg ever stared over. It is the land of surrender without the hope of mercy. Where the grace-lessons of hurt and suffering are never learned. Or are forgotten and repeated. Again.

"The Recalibrated Heart is realizing all those things," said Barnes, "but I think it is an optimistic reach outward. There's got to be some comfort in there somewhere."

College: the time of reckless experimentation or when ennui sets into your bones. For Jamie Barnes, it was a time to work on his music and develop the fortitude to actually send it to an independent label.

"I recorded a bunch of stuff when I was 19 or 20," Barnes reported, "and eventually got up the courage to send out those demos out to the four winds. After sending out 50 or something, Silber Records out of North Carolina picked up on it. They're predominantly an ambient, experimental sort of label."

Barnes didn't recall why exactly Silber was on his mail-to list. He suspects it was because two other acts on that label, Arktica and Rivulets, were doing the same type of music he was.

He continued. "They liked the demos enough to want to put them out as my first official record, The Fallen Acrobat, which came out in 2002. It did okay. It got some international reviews, but it sold probably only about 500 copies. They provided good distribution and reviews, but not sales. And that's okay. It got me on a lot of people's radars."

Silber was gracious enough to continue their relationship with Barnes by releasing his follow up, Honey From the Ribcage, in 2005, a slightly more mature recording.

"It was a little bit more grown up, I guess you could say. The stuff I had recorded for The Fallen Acrobat was stuff I had written at 18 and 19 years old. There's definitely a cringe factor when I listen to it," he admitted with a small smile.

With a pair of recordings in the catalog of a label that is keyed into a boxed-in niche, Barnes began to develop the second portion of his career: playing out and trying to get his name in the buzz mix of Louisville music and into areas outside the city. And into Europe, too.

"I recorded an EP for a company out of Belgium called Sundays in Spring. It was called Paper Crane. It helped strengthen my European audience, even though it's still kind of small."

Barnes next began work on The Recalibrated Heart, where even the spaces between the notes brim with spiritual questions and gratitude. He wrote the songs mostly for himself with no intent to proselytize or even offer comfort. That was meant for the listeners to take away and digest.

"The record's not meant to be some overwhelming emotional piece," he admitted. "What I sing about in my life may not necessarily be the same thing that's going on in other peoples' lives. It's probably not. I'm sort of vague a little on purpose sometimes. Sometimes I'm too specific almost to the point where people don't know what I'm talking about.

"I'm not looking to change peoples' ways of living. Yet. But if it gives them some sort of comfort, that's a win in my book."

Production and distribution help came from Pink Bullet Recordings, a new label created by a group of Louisville musicians. The Recalibrated Heart was to be its initial release.

"They gave me a really good deal," Barnes said. "They paid for the pressing and they got some good radio support from a company in Minneapolis. It did well on some charts here and there. So I thought it was a good stab for them as a label. They gave me a great deal as far as the number of copies they allowed me to sell. It was an easy decision for me to go with them, even though this was catalog item number one for them. But it was with the intention of hoping to upsell it to a bigger label. And that's exactly what happened."

On June 12, Heart was re-released nationally under the Sonablast brand. According to Barnes, the team at Pink Bullet got a nice price for the record, which will go into production costs for the next three or four of its next products.

"They used be as a springboard for a little bit and I used them, too. With this record I was more interested in making a financial impact. All I was doing was making shows and selling CDs. It was selling well enough that I was able to pay the bills. So it was a win-win situation. I got passed off to a bigger label. And everybody's happy."

Now that the music business model that has been at work for more than half a century is getting hammered by industry pundits, when even the music press is creating dead pools on when the whole thing just lawsuits itself into dust and when it will still blame its demise on college kids with lots of music on their computers and a modicum of smarts in knowing how to share it across a network, musicians like Barnes and many others have found label homes based on a better business model that makes sure the music gets out there, keeping their losses at a minimum while keeping the focus on what they're in business for in the first place: the musician and the music.

Combine that with the basic technical skills many musicians have with their own mixing boards, a few instruments they own or have borrowed and a computer with some pro-grade recording software: economical creativity.

Kurt Vonnegut said that he once wrote a story where he destroyed the world and spent only a few feet of typewriter ribbon and some wear on the seat of his pants to do it. Musicians like Barnes may not have dreams of destroying the world on a ribbon-and-pants budget. But they can use the economical creativity model and make masterpieces without even thinking about going into a studio.

"Studios scare me," Barnes said. "I don't like the idea of a guy looking at his watch, waiting for me to sing. It's just expensive. I've been sort of a fan of a lot of the low-fi recordings. I definitely think that a studio has its place. But I think that over the years that a lot of people just go into a studio for the sake of going into one and just whatever advanced technology is there just for the heck of it, then come out with a really slick, really impersonal-sounding record. When something goes too far, it has to get taken down and get brought back to the basics. I prefer to work at home because I can just leave it and come back to it when I want. I don't have to schedule creative time. And you don't have to pay for it."

It is easy to extend the spiritual theme of The Recalibrated Heart into husky questions of why we create and how to we best share what we create with the rest of the world and even make a few dollars off of it to keep us happy, provide for our families and help us reach our dreams. In Barnes's world described in this release, the heart isn't broken and reassembled with cheap glue, it isn't healed by some kind of cosmic superforce. It's the same heart. It just gets tinkered with, refined, retuned, tweaked like a cuckoo clock and set back to running again. Better, this time.

Perhaps, according to Jamie Barnes, a recalibrated heart is supposed to teach a lesson to other people and other things. It's time for a tweaking. One that will keep us off roads of ash heaps and burning cars.

Get recalibrated at www.jamiebarnes.net.