A mural of Jeffrey Barnes is painted outside Juicy Pig Barbecue in Denton.
A mural of Jeffrey Barnes is painted outside Juicy Pig Barbecue in Denton.

Former Brave Combo Member Jeffrey Barnes Seeks Immortality Through Music

Seated at a wooden picnic table, Jeffrey Barnes sips a Lone Star tallboy between bites of his mac and cheese brisket sandwich. Ever the eccentric, Barnes dons a beaded hat and bolo tie. The lapel of his suit is speckled with colorful pins, and two penny whistles and a flute nest in its inner pocket. He is always ready for a show.

It’s here on the enormous psychedelic mural facing the Juicy Pig Barbecue restaurant that multi-instrumentalist Barnes has been immortalized. His near life-size portrait plays two saxophones – one in each hand – and enjoys the company of fellow famed Dentonites like 1940s movie star Ann Sheridan and blues musician Tom “Pops” Carter. Like them, Barnes is widely regarded as a local legend and hometown hero.

“I’m just a jack of all trades, master of none,” he says with an unassuming shrug. Although his humble nature is undoubtedly genuine, many would disagree with Barnes; he’s a jack of all trades, master of all.

For more than three decades, Barnes was a member of local “nuclear polka” band Brave Combo, a genre coined for its hybrid genre of polka and punk. During his stint with the band, members of Brave Combo were transformed into cartoons for an episode of The Simpsons and had their music featured in several films and television shows. They were nominated for seven Grammy Awards and won twice.

Since his departure from Brave Combo in 2015, Barnes has played with countless other musicians and is constantly looking for the next gig. Even with his impressive resume, Barnes has had trouble making a living as a musician, at times working odd jobs to make ends meet.

“The money is pretty bad,” he says. “But sometimes I cultivate aquatic plants for Joe Snow. I really like that; I hope to do it some more.”

Barnes is an enigma: He achieved outstanding SAT scores but never finished high school. (He later got his GED.) He’s an indisputably gifted musician but didn’t learn how to drive until he was 40. He has the 35-minute-long "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" memorized but has lost count of how many instruments he can play.

Barnes was born in Fremont, Ohio, where he lived with his parents and three sisters in a small section of a ramshackle mansion before relocating to Colorado Springs. From there, he moved to Beaumont and began playing music with anyone who would let him, later landing in Austin. When a budding band called Brave Combo came to town to search for a new saxophonist, Barnes jumped at the chance. He beat out both of his mentors for the position and moved to Denton in 1983 to join the band.

It was a busy, fortuitous year for him; 1983 was the same year he would meet his future wife, Gina. Although Barnes was smitten with her immediately, there was just one small problem.

“I knew she had a boyfriend in the circus,” he says. “For all I knew, her boyfriend was a knife thrower or something. So I was a little worried about that.”

While much of Barnes’ life seemed to fall perfectly in place, he struggled to maintain a positive relationship with his father. His dad actively discouraged him from pursuing a career in music and instead wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer. But even after Barnes’ sister became a doctor, his father still wasn’t pleased.

“It’s a game you cannot win,” Barnes says with a sigh. “Might as well just play another game.”

Barnes was a member of Brave Combo for nearly half of his life, learning new instruments along the way. During recording sessions, he’d play saxophone, clarinet, flute, harmonica, penny whistles, guitar and organ. He taught himself Mongolian Tuvan throat singing, in which one sings a fundamental pitch and layers on several other pitches simultaneously. He’s a bit of a collector, and exotic instruments from around the world are scattered around his house.

Throughout his musical career, Barnes also mastered a litany of genres like polka, salsa, zydeco, meringue, cha cha and classical. But his favorite genre is arguably the most simplistic.

“I love playin’ the blues,” Barnes says. “It’s sort of like a rat in a maze playin’ on three chords, but there’s also this emotional release – like playing things that are in the cracks of the piano.”

Barnes carries a pocket notebook and pencil with him wherever he goes; if he’s not playing music, he’s likely writing. Filled with riddles and poems, anagrams and palindromes, the notebook serves as a window into Barnes’ complex psyche.

Paul Slavens, a musician and DJ at radio station KXT, says his admiration for Barnes is boundless.

“He’s at the top of my list of people that I think are geniuses,” Slavens says. “I have no problem saying that about Jeff. He’s just got depths of interesting, joyful creativity … and he’s weird. He’s the most unrepentantly weird person – musician – that I know.”

Barnes is almost as famous for his eccentric fashion sense as he is for his playing. He constantly gets recognized around town. He's an endearing and approachable figure.

Slavens says it took him years to get over his hero worship of Barnes.

“He epitomizes old-school Denton freakery,” Slavens says. “And he’s a true multi-instrumentalist and a dedicated person whose life is art. Everything about him emanates from a central core of creativity.”

Singer-songwriter Ginny Mac got to know Barnes well during her two and a half years as a member of Brave Combo.

“My theory is Jeffrey is not of this planet, and he just comes down to, like, visit us for a while,” she says with a laugh.

Mac says she looks up to Barnes and his insatiable curiosity.

“I’ve never seen anyone more thirsty to learn,” she says. “You can bring up any arbitrary subject, and chances are Jeffrey has read something about it or knows something about it. And I love that energy with him, especially with music.”

Nearly every Monday night, Slavens is the host of a musical improv show at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, where Barnes is a frequent contributor. Mac says that she has learned much from listening to Barnes improvise at these gigs and loves to watch him “explore the musical space."

“He has such a great ear and a good sense of what’s going on in any musical situation,” Mac says. “He’s going to be that guy that can sort of tie it together. And he’s going to play something tasteful, or he’s going to play something quirky when it needs to be quirky, you know. He just has a great sense of what is being
communicated.”

But Barnes’ otherworldly charm doesn’t pay the bills. He’s constantly gigging as a member of myriad bands like The Gypsy Playboys, Le Not So Hot Club and the Nitty Gritty Jazz Band. He also supplements his income by teaching music lessons at the Bonduris School of Music and working outdoors with aquatic plants. For a man in his mid 60s, the instability can be scary.

“It’s a cautionary tale to musicians,” Slavens says. “It’s like, you can’t get better than Jeffrey. Or more true or more honest or more worthy. … You can be loved and admired by a whole lot of people and still have to go and stick your hands in the mud at the age of 65.”

But Barnes doesn’t seem bothered. He likes working with aquatic plants, and he likes teaching. Mainly, though, those jobs make it possible for him to do what he loves most: exploring and learning about music, a journey he calls “the endless pursuit."

Thoughtfully gazing at the mural across from the Juicy Pig, Barnes finishes his sandwich and licks the remaining barbecue sauce off his fingers. He takes his harmonica out of his suit pocket and absentmindedly plays a familiar lick before setting it down on the wooden table. Suddenly snapping out of his self-induced reverie, he closes his pocket notebook and takes the last sip of his beer. His blue eyes twinkle in the twilight.

If it’s so difficult for him to make a living, why does he continue to play music?

“It’s fun,” he says with a grin. He pauses to think for a moment before continuing, carefully choosing each word. “There are times to be so far into it that time itself goes away, that essentially you are in eternity, and that’s that. You cease to be an isolated, alienated noun and become a happy, carefree verb. To be in the flow, it’s like – that’s immortality.”

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