While his mother was visiting the family, William Earl Barnes was born, July 13, 1928 on Jackson Branch in Madison County. Earl is the eldest son of the late Reverend Jake and Mary Barnes. Originally from Estill County, they returned there to Barnes Mountain the following year. In 1935, his father moved the family to the end of
Earl first became interested in music for various reasons. He recalls that his family did not have a radio, but his father, one evening, had brought home an “old crank Victrola” along with three records of the Carter Family, Blue Sky Boys, and Bill Monroe. He adored spending time listening to these performers as his love for music began to grow.
Since there was little else to do for entertainment, music played an important part of family gatherings on Saturday nights. In addition to his immediate family, other extended members would be present, a couple of aunts and a few cousins. Earl taking an old broom for his guitar and his mother playing the comb, they would play and sing before the family. He believes that these family performances helped to prepare him in getting in front of larger audiences.
Many events called for such entertainment. His father played the banjo claw hammer style and would walk miles to barn raisings or square dances. The music that followed intrigued Earl. The music that sparked his interest and that he learned initially were the mountain ballads that he heard so often. Songs like “Frankie and Johnny”, “A Little Log Cabin in the Lane”, and “Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight” greatly influenced his early music.
His father was a bit of a trader, and in 1938, he traded for an old D28 Martin guitar which he brought home. He played “Wild Wood Flower” and told Earl that if he could learn to play, he would give that guitar to him. Whenever he caught his parents out of the house, he would sneak off and practice playing the song. Eventually, his parents came in one evening to find him playing the guitar, and true to his word his father gave it to him. He began listening to many songs both on records, the radio, and those performed at family gatherings to learn additional ones on that old guitar. He began to play and sing so well that a local preacher, by the name of Milt King, heard him one evening and asked him to sing at his tent meetings. It was through Mr. King that he learned to play and sing gospel music.
Earl continued to play his music at tent meetings, parties, and family gatherings. At the age of 17, in 1945, he worked and saved his money to buy his first new guitar in Lexington,
This same year, Earl happened to meet Slim Miller who played fiddle at Renfro Valley. Slim heard that Earl played guitar, thus inviting him to play with him the following weekend. Earl admits that he wasn’t really excited about going as he had never played for a large audience. Nevertheless, he did and there, he met Mr. John Lair who liked his guitar playing. He asked Earl if he could sing to which he replied, “Well, I try!” Mr. Lair wanted to hear him sing and so he performed “A Little Log Cabin in the Lane” and “Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight”, songs that he had learned from his mother. Liking what he heard, Mr. Lair offered him a job performing on Saturday nights for sixty cents to one dollar, depending on the crowd. Here he met and became friends with Emery Martin, Smokey Ward, Little Eller, Randall Parker, and Lillie May Ledford.
From Renfro, Earl began to play country music, taking him to Woodland Auditorium in Lexington,
He admits that country music would have made a better living, bring in more money, but the atmosphere where country music was played was undesirable to him. Country music was popular at this time in the bar settings. The crowd would become so intoxicated by the end of the show, that they really didn’t know what you were singing. He made the decision, “If I have to play in that kind of environment, I will quit.”
In the sixties, Earl returned to Renfro Valley for a couple of years, and then he started a Saturday night show at
While at the Woodland Auditorium, Earl became acquainted with many Bluegrass players, including Don Reno. In 1948, Mr. Reno invited him to a festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana, organized by Bill Monroe. He explains that festivals hadn’t really gotten off the ground at this time. He did attend this festival solo one weekend and just played with other musicians that were there. This began his love for the outdoor stage and for Bluegrass music. He attributes the growth of Bluegrass to the state of
Later on, he again attended the festival with a band with which he played mandolin. While playing with this group, they performed the song, “Blue Moon of
Earl’s love for the outdoor stage only grew from here. He began to organize many of the festivals around the country including the first Bluegrass festival ever held in Madison County at the old fairgrounds in Richmond,
Earl is talented with just about any instrument he chooses to play. With this knowledge, he was asked to begin teaching students in the 1960’s. He first started with local music stores, for Richmond Supply, and finally for himself. He taught guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass to many willing students both young and old around the state in the counties of Fayette, Clark, Powell, Estill, Lee, Boyle, Lincoln, and Jackson. One night a week, he would travel to various counties, while students in others would come to his home. These times play a great part of his memories of music. He says that it was a great honor and filled him with a sense of accomplishment to see a young child take off with something that he had taught them. Many of his former students continued with their music and made great names for themselves. Many of his former students have gone on to form bands of their own, teaching music in colleges. Much of what he taught has become the curriculum of many music departments in colleges.
Earl has recorded numerous albums, several which were recordings of his group “The Bluegrass Travelers” and “The Richmond Ramblers” in the sixties. Around 1970, Earl began playing for the Cumberland Rangers. Members included Asa Martin, leader, Jim Gaskin, fiddle, Grady Buzz Berzel, auto harp, Gilbert Thomas, mandolin, and Earl, banjo. Many of the other instruments they played included a brown jug, hand saw, and washboard. They put on quite a show he recalls while promoting folk and country music over the country. He traveled with this group for approximately 14 years playing all over the United States in folk festivals, colleges, universities, the Library of Congress in Washington,
Over the years, Earl has written and recorded over 200 songs, and continues to receive royalties for many today. He has seen the technology improve from 45 records to 33 albums, cassette tapes to compact discs. His son, Danny, has played an instrumental role in getting many of the songs that he has written recorded through his groups such as the Continental Divide. His latest recorded album was Earl Barnes and Friends, which he believes will be his last. The inspiration for his many songs is family members and stories in his lifetime. He believes that to write a song, as well as any writing, you must have a topic in mind, know it well, and it must come from your heart. Therefore, many of his songs tell stories from his childhood in the hills of
Earl is proud of his two sons, Danny and Randall, as they became a part of their father’s music and traveling in the 1970’s. When the boys first started playing with him and Jim Gaskin, their music took them all over the country including the many festivals for Bill Monroe. They also traveled to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville,
In addition to his many musical successes, Earl has also played roles in several movies. In 1970, he was contacted by KET to appear as a fiddle player in the movie “This Other Eden”. The movie was about Daniel Boone coming across the Cumberland Gap where filming took place from there to Boonsboro, and was finished in Frankfort,
Recently, he was honored by being registered with the Kentucky Hall of Fame at Renfro Valley and will soon be inducted. He has sent the Valley a few of his personal items that he used throughout the years of his country and Bluegrass days and are now on display in the Hall of Fame.
Today, Earl doesn’t travel quite as much as he used to except his annual trip to Big Stone Gap, Virginia to play at an outdoor drama. Most Saturday mornings, he can be found at