The Nashville Jester

Words by Blake Ells

Photos by Clark Brewer

“A decade ago, I went to my manager and said, ‘I think I have enough material to try a stand-up show, but I don’t want you to tell me when you book it, because I will absolutely try to get my way out of it.’”

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Dave Barnes has been writing and recording music in Nashville for nearly two decades, and his performances have long been known for his charismatic and humorous stage presence. Over the last year, he’s begun transforming his live show into a one-man revue.

It began several years ago when Dave told his manager to book two shows at Bongo Java near Belmont University. The tiny coffee shop held approximately 50 people, and Dave agreed to take the leap under the condition that he could create the guest list. His friends loved it. They encouraged him to move forward with it. And that grew into Dave doing a sold-out comedy show each year at the Belcourt Theatre. But he feared a real commitment to comedy, as his music career was still very young.

“When people know you’ve done music for a while—no matter how much they appreciate it—comedy just has such an immediate response,” he said. “It’s so much more of a lightning bolt, where music is a nice little afternoon at the beach or a nice summer rain. Laughter is such a moment. You feel it.”

In 2017, his manager encouraged him to add more stand-up to his touring schedule. Chicago, Denver, Nashville, and Atlanta were among the stops on the first real stand-up tour for Dave, and for the first time, he became comfortable with that part of his repertoire. Eventually, he decided to combine the two into one evening of entertainment. “We decided that if anything was going to drag people out of their warm television-streaming living room situation, it was going to be that,” Dave said. “And thankfully, it really worked. I had not been to the Northwest in five or six years, and all of those shows sold out. It was really great.”

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He warms up with the music, takes an intermission, and closes with his stand-up act. The music, he says, is a passive experience, while comedy asks much more of the audience. And comedy always made him most comfortable.

“What always helped me get through my live shows was my humor,” he said. “I was comfortable on stage because I had grown up doing skits and improv, and I thought, ‘Surely I can figure out this music thing.’ That was the impetus for it. I liked being onstage. If you watch my old shows, I’d sweat my way through songs, and then I’d have five minutes to be funny. They were coalesced from the beginning; it was later that I kind of pulled them apart.”

He released his first EP in 2002 after graduating from Middle Tennessee State University. He’d spent his youth in rural Kosciusko, Mississippi, a community in the central part of the state that he describes as its own ecosystem. “It let me incubate and figure out my personality and all of these things without much outside influence,” he said. “My town had a population of 8,000 people—when we moved to Knoxville, my school had 2,000 students.”

He’d played drums in the marching band, but he’d not been around amps and bass guitars until he arrived for his senior year of high school in Knoxville. A month after arriving, he was invited to jam with some local musicians, a seminal moment leading him to entertainment.

For a period in the early 2000s, Dave and fellow musician Matt Wertz were pioneers of sorts. The Music City was focused on churning out country radio giants, while Dave and Wertz were focused on creating their music independently. Napster had given them—and artists like them—an opportunity to be heard across the country. “We could go to a city we had never been to and have 300 to 400 people there because of Napster,” Dave said. “For a lot of people, it was a frustrating thing, but for us—we’d put music out and all of a sudden, it was everywhere.”

Over the past decade, his adopted hometown once steeped in country music has found itself home to independent artists of all genres. Surely, Jack White had a heavy hand in what the Music City has become over the past ten years. Though he’d never take such credit, Dave deserves it for his own role in laying the foundation.

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“Someone has taken the sides of [the city] and just pulled out as far as they could,” Dave said. “It’s made all of the space for all of these different kinds of music. I think Nashville is the greatest community of songwriters in the world. It’s exciting to me to see those people contribute to other kinds of music. It’s always fun to be a part of it because there’s always creative energy pulsating around the city. Living here, you always feel forever young creatively. You don’t have to look very hard to find things to be inspired by.”

Now Dave has planted another seed in the Nashville arts community—a comedy show separate and distinct from the music performance. Maybe Nashville can be a comedy town, too. It’s certainly seen its share of humor as the home of the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw, but no performer has ever tried anything quite like this. At 40, Dave continues redefining what’s included in the price of admission.