Russ Barenberg is one of the most melodic instrumentalists in contemporary bluegrass. Best known for his Clarence White-style flatpicking, Barenberg often uses his other three fingers to enhance rhythm and melody and create a more textural sensitivity. A former member of Country Cooking, Heartlands, Fiddle Fever, and Laughing Hands, Barenberg has remained active since moving to Nashville in 1986.
Inspired by Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt, Barenberg began playing guitar at the age of 13. Along with his brother and sister, he took lessons from Alan Miller, the older brother of future bandmate John Miller. A turning point came in 1964, when Barenberg discovered the late Clarence White on an album by the Kentucky Colonels, Appalachian Swing! While attending Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, in 1968, Barenberg met banjo whiz Pete Wernick. Two years later, the two instrumentalists joined with Tony Trischka, Kenny Kosek, and John Miller to form the seminal bluegrass band Country Cooking. During the four years that Country Cooking was together, the group recorded two influential albums, Country Cooking and 26 Bluegrass Instrumentals, and accompanied mandolinist Frank Wakefield on a third album.
After Country Cooking disbanded in 1975, Barenberg temporarily switched to electric guitar and performed with a jazz-rock band, Carried Away. Frustrated by the music business, however, he stopped playing from 1975 to 1977 when he moved to New York and, together with Trischka, Miller, and fiddler Matt Glaser, formed the innovative bluegrass band Heartlands. Although the band failed to record an album of its own, Heartlands backed Barenberg on his 1980 debut solo album, Cowboy Calypso.
Moving to Boston, Barenberg freelanced with several pickup bands and taught guitar and mandolin at the Music Emporium in Cambridge. In 1982, he joined Glaser and fiddler/mandolinist Jay Ungar in the eclectic string band Fiddle Fever, recording two albums with the group. In addition, Barenberg worked with Glaser and mandolinist Andy Statman in the short-lived experimental bluegrass-jazz band Laughing Hands.
Since moving to Nashville, Barenberg has worked extensively with dobro player and record producer Jerry Douglas. In addition to accompanying Irish vocalist Maura O'Connell, the two musicians recorded a trio album, Skip, Hop & Wobble, with upright bassist Edgar Meyer.
As a session player, Barenberg has recorded on numerous demo tapes for Nashville publishing companies and appeared on albums by Béla Fleck, Hazel Dickens, Mel Tillis, and Randy Travis. Barenberg has also been featured on instructional tapes, including How to Play Bluegrass Guitar and Teach Yourself Bluegrass Guitar, released by Homespun Tapes and Videos. He earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance for the song "Little Monk" from his 2007 album When at Last. ~ Craig Harris