First things first

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – It’s getting late on bluegrass night at the Cantab Lounge and Mike Barnett shakes off a yawn, grabs his fiddle and hops on stage. His fingers dance on the violin’s neck while the bow in his other hand attacks the strings with short, furious scrapes then backs off with longer, gentle strokes. There’s a little funk to his bluegrass, a bit of modern sound sprinkled into an old-time style.

Instead of coaxing the notes, he demands they pop out. And when they do, the faces he makes – filled with surprising smiles and wide eyes – show he’s enjoying the music as much as the people watching him make it.

Mike knows this is what he wants to do with his life. He just has to get through high school first.

“He’s jumping through the hoops here that he has to jump through, but he’s doing a good job at it,” said Kayla Welin, a music teacher at Longmeadow High School, where Mike is a 17-year-old junior pulling down As and Bs. “He’s really living two lives.”

He put out a solo album, “Lost Indian,” when he was 14 and spent the past year playing regular gigs at the Grand Ole Opry and touring with bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds.

“Oh man, it was crazy,” he says of his first show at the Opry with the 77-year-old McReynolds. It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2005. He was just 16.

“He went over great down there,” McReynolds said. “I’ve worked with a lot of young people, but it’s unusual to find someone that young who learns things as fast as Mike does. You just never hear him hit a bad note.”

While it’s not unusual to find a talented teenager playing the music Bill Monroe pioneered in the 1930s, bluegrass aficionados say a talent as young and developed as Mike’s is rare.

“I found out he was a mere kid and I truly couldn’t believe it,” said Wayne Bledsoe, editor of Bluegrass Now magazine who predicts the teenager from a small suburb in western Massachusetts will “make a big name for himself.”

And that’s exactly what Mike is hoping for. He recently started recording with Northern Lights, a group noted for their “newgrass” sound that stretches the confines of traditional bluegrass and weaves in fresh ideas that leave some of the older players shaking their heads.

And at the Cantab – a sweaty place where bluegrass musicians play to a full house on Tuesdays and keep jamming long after the crowd leaves – the protege has found another place to play.

But he still has to deal with life as a high school student slogging his way through pre-calculous, “The Canterbury Tales” and hours of homework.

He’s the kid with ripped jeans, a laid-back slouch and lousy excuse for forgetting his copy of “Johnny Got His Gun” for history class (“I didn’t buy it yet”). He registers his understanding and approval with a thumbs up and understated “cool,” and tosses a Frisbee when he’s walking to class.

He’s also the hardwired musician who doesn’t skip a chance to play. After downing a quick lunch in the school cafeteria, he grabs his fiddle from the music room and finds a quiet hallway or empty stairwell to practice.

Even in class, Mike can’t keep music off his mind. His gig at the Cantab is just a few hours away, and while history teacher Joe Sweeney is doling out reading assignments and talking about imperialism, Mike is mapping out chord progressions in his notebook.

“Why waste this time?” he says. “If there’s not a lot going on in class, I try to make good use of the time thinking about music.”

Most of his teachers are understanding of his schedule, and give him extra time to complete assignments. He played well over 100 dates last year, and concert promoters don’t care if they book him on a school night.

“Let’s face it,” Sweeney says, “he’s probably not going to college as a history major. So as long as he does his assignments in a reasonable amount of time, we could be flexible.”

That flexibility sets him apart from his peers. But besides some good-natured ribbing that mixes a bit of envy with support, his classmates say they admire Mike’s talent. “He’s going to Boston tonight to do a show,” 16-year-old Pat Williams Jr. said after Mike mentioned the Cantab gig in English class. “I’m going home to do my homework.”

While he has friends at school, the people closest to him are the musicians he’s met from around the country at bluegrass festivals and fiddle camps.

He had a steady girlfriend for about a year – a mandolin player from Illinois he met a festival when he was 15. They split up when Mike figured he was spending more time talking to her on the phone than practicing.

Mike’s schedule and social life have concerned his mother and father, both doctors who are figuring out how to best manage their son’s talent. When he toured with Jesse McReynolds, they knew he’d be exposed to all the cliche vices that go with a musician’s life on the road.

And while Mike says he isn’t one to ignore the female fans, drugs and alcohol hold no appeal because “they could hurt how you play.”

“We felt that it was an incredible opportunity for him,” his father, Pat Barnett, says about Mike’s playing with McReynolds. “But it was never an easy decision to let him do it.”

Pat Barnett, a classical pianist who got his master’s degree in music before deciding on a medical career, admits he and his wife, Barbara Greco, are not the best stage parents. They haven’t learned how to navigate the world of record executives yet, but they knew enough to recognize their son’s talent.

They bought him his first violin when he was 4, soon after he became fascinated with the instrument when he saw it in the hands of a cartoon character.

Although the family was living just outside Nashville at the time, there wasn’t any bluegrass playing in the house. His parents’ taste gravitated toward classical, and that’s what they pushed Mike to study.

He was good, but he never learned how to read music very well. He complained that classical music hurt his ears. But he had a knack for learning scales and melodies just by listening to them, and that’s still how he figures out a song.

He wanted to quit when he was about 9, but his father made him a deal: Give fiddling a whirl. If the more lively and relaxed style doesn’t do anything for you, walk away.

He signed up for lessons with Crystal Plohman, the fiddling program director at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music in Nashville. She introduced him to bluegrass, and he was hooked.

“As soon as he got the spark, he took off,” Plohman says. “He got better than anyone else I’ve taught in the shortest amount of time. I think he’ll be one of the top players we’ll be hearing in the future.”

While Plohman encourages Mike’s experimentation with “newgrass,” which ignores many of the melodic rules familiar to bluegrass players, some of his other teachers are skeptical of what it means for his career and the future of bluegrass.

Instead of playing straight melodies, his riffs have a funky edge. Rather than play a line straight, he adds a percussive “chika-chika” by scraping his bow against the strings with a technique called “chopping.”

“He’s a good player and he’s got a lot of talent, there’s no doubt about it,” said Bobby Hicks, who made a name for himself more than 50 years ago playing with Bill Monroe. “But he’s playing all this wild stuff off in left field. It’s not bluegrass as I know it.”

But it’s the music that Mike loves: a combination of technical skill and off-the-cuff improvisation. He plans to study it more formally in college, maybe Berklee College of Music in Boston or Belmont University in Nashville.

Meanwhile, there’s no escaping the fact that college – let alone a full-time music career – seems far away for a 17-year-old who just wants to play his fiddle.

“Do you have your toothbrush?” his mother asks as he’s leaving home for the 90-minute drive to the gig in Cambridge, where he planned to stay overnight with a friend.

She makes no apologies for maybe embarrassing him in front of a visitor, and they exchange an “I love you” before he heads out the door.

“He might be a genius,” she says. “But he’s still a teenager.”

AP-ES-01-13-07 1304EST

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