arden-barnett

by Paul Wolf

Been to any good shows lately? If you have, chances are, Arden Barnett’s the guy behind them. And if you haven’t, you may get busted for it.

“You never come to any shows now that you’re married,” he playfully throws at me. But I have a different theory to lob back his direction. “If you’re putting on five shows a week, I can’t make it to them all!”

All kidding aside, Barnett’s name is on multiple productions in any given month, be they at Hal & Mal’s, Underground 119, Martin’s, in Oxford or Hattiesburg, or, at our favorite spot, Duling Hall in Fondren. And things don’t seem to be quieting down any time soon.

Born in Forest, Miss., but living all over as a kid, Barnett grew up in Clinton, but spent his formative years in Boise, Idaho. His father, an entrepreneur, ran a sign shop there where the younger Barnett cut his teeth in the creative business. It’s also where he really started in business of music. “For sure,” he remembers. Working in a music store, running sound for bands and selling high-end home audio. The first show that he was a part of producing was for Hoyt Axton.

When his father came to work in Birmingham, Arden tagged along. It was there he attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham and, within two months of his freshman year, became the chair of the concert committee. “The rest is history,” he says with a grin.

Returning to Jackson in 1986, Barnett’s aim was to be on top. He asked around and found that folks called Malcolm White the go-to guy for live music. “I wanted to book his shows. But Mal said ‘No, you can wait tables,”  Barnett remembers. As a server, White allowed him to partner for a date with bluesman Taj Mahal. Barnett called it a great night. That lead to a few more bookings, which took him out of the restaurant and upstairs. Barnett became White’s booker for eight years, including memorable events like Jubilee Jam and the Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day parade.

But in 1994, he said ‘Screw it: I’m done.’ “It was a lot of stress. I had a lot going on in my life, but I had reached a place where it was time to take a break,” he explains. The tipping point, he recalls, was a festival on the scale of a Bonnaroo where ticket sales hadn’t performed well. With millions on the line, it put a bad taste in Barnett’s mouth. Two days of panic lead to six years out of the business.

So, for a time, he mowed fairways at Reunion Golf Course. “I still would love to write a book on the Zen of mowing at sun up. It’s spectacular,” he says with a look of bliss. “It was good at the time to decompress and try to get back to my roots and rid some evils.” And, he says, it worked.

For several years, Barnett worked for Sky Golf, a golf course mapping firm, but he was laid off. That’s when the muse came calling again. He says there wasn’t a day in his life after he got out of music that he didn’t think about it. “Not one, much less one hour,” he emphasizes. “It’s so ingrained in my soul. In the back of my brain, there was always that thought – there was a likelihood I’d do again what I wanted to do.” He received wife Heidi’s blessing to return to the business and says it’s been a blessing for him.

The first show back was in February 2011 with the ‘Love to Be Loved’ series at St. James’ Episcopal Church. Carrie Rodriquez, Erin McKeown and Cary Hudson filled the bill for an intimate concert experience. Two more shows followed before a summer break and a move to Duling Hall.

When Barnett approached the hall’s property manager, Mike Peters, he went in with the bravado he had to Malcolm White many years before. “I wanted the building and he said no,” Barnett says. “But he told me I was welcome to put on shows there.”

Some of his most memorable dates over the last two years there have included Lost in The Trees. “Way out there, unfamiliar, but gorgeous music,” he says. “Their performance was a religious experience.” He tells the same for Taj Mahal, Dweezil Zappa and Chris Robinson Brotherhood. “Even the solo shows of Caroline Herring – all of it really reinforces why I do what I do. Even if we lose money, it’s magic. To see it in people’s eyes and they come up and say thanks – or in McDade’s coming up saying ‘Thank you for what you do,’ it’s… yeah, makes me want to cry.”

But there have been those nights where there are twelve people in the room. “Still are,” he says with a chuckle. “But it’s good advertising.” He views it this way: “I could spend $500 to buy an ad to drum up more business for private bookings (his bread and butter). But I would just as soon put on a concert and lose $500. By putting on a show, we get our name out and it’s associated with music. From a business stand point, it’s advertising. I’d rather see it on stage than in a magazine.”

Has the strategy paid off? “100 percent,” he says. “in a number of ways.” Indirectly, the Duling Hall concerts have lead to Barnett’s managing the Sun and Sand Festival for the Mississippi Film Office and the Bay Bridge Music Festival.

Traveling often, meeting agents and venue owners, Barnett compares the Jackson scene to Austin’s. “We’re strong, baby,” he says in signature Arden style. “Our town in general – our city – is on the cusp of entering in to the next phase of being one of the greatest places in the country to live. We have to struggle a little more to get it done, but we are getting it done, every day.”

Barnett’s model is a unique one and may account for his recent successes: show up, money or not – or he’ll be pissed. “My view is, if you don’t have money and you want music, you should be able to hear music. If you have the money and don’t know the band, come give it a try.” he says it’s the old cliché ‘what goes around comes around.’ “That’s so true in life and the way it needs to be.”

Kind of like this music man’s career? With serenity, he says, “Exactly.”

This Fall at Duling Hall

David Cook
Tuesday | September 17
Cocktails 6:30pm. Show 7:30pm.

Lisa Marie Presley
Wednesday | September 18
Cocktails 6:30pm. Show 7:30pm.

Son Volt
Thursday | September 19
Cocktails 7:00pm. Show 8:00pm.

Willie Sugarcapps
Will Kimbrough | Grayson Capps | Corky Hughes | Sugarcane Jane with Lisa Mills
Friday | September 20
Cocktails 7:30pm. Show 8:30pm.

Paul Thorn | Tommy Malone
Friday | September 27
Cocktails 7:00pm. Show 8:00pm.

An evening with Leo Kottke
Friday | October 4
Cocktails 7:00pm. Show 8:00pm.
all ages

Street Corner Symphony
Friday | October 11
Cocktails 7:30pm. Show 9:00pm.
all ages

Jason Isbell | Cary Hudson
Monday | October 21
Cocktails 6:30pm. Show 8:00pm.

Todd Snider
Wednesday | October 30
Cocktails 6:30pm. Show 8:00pm.

The Bright Lights Social Hour
Monday | November 4
Cocktails 7:00pm. Show 8:00pm

Shlohmo | Xxyyxx
Wednesday | November 6
Cocktails 6:30pm | Show 7:30pm

Sarah Jarosz
Thursday | November 14
Cocktails 6:30pm. Show 7:30pm.

Otis Lotus
Friday | November 22
Cocktails 7:30pm. Show 9:00pm.

Zoso
Friday | December 7
Cocktails 8:00pm. Show 10:00pm.

All shows (unless noted) are 18+
Tickets at ardenland.net