Updated: May 5
Keith Barnacastle owns bluegrass instruments of every flavor, though he's never really picked the banjo or leaned into his custom-built upright bass. But he's making a lot of noise in bluegrass by publishing a free, in-depth magazine about the music and running a record label that uniquely serves its artists.
"I want people to know about this music, to learn about it, and not have to pay to read it," Barnacastle said about The Bluegrass Standard. "And with Turnberry Records, we want to keep finding new music and helping these artists, whether they're playing traditional or newgrass."
You might assume that a kid growing up in Meridian, Mississippi, whose family sang gospel music across the South as The Barnacastle Singers would have a fast track to the stage.
"My dad and my mom have beautiful singing voices, and my dad's three sisters have beautiful voices, but I didn't get the singing voice. I got the gift of gab."
Steeped in traditional music as a kid, Barnacastle heard all sorts of music as a student at the University of Southwest Louisiana, including the Cajun music played by the locals. After graduating, he moved to California, working for Occidental Petroleum before satisfying a desire to become an entrepreneur and employing himself. As his in-home nursing business grew, though, he was pulled toward the music he grew up with.
"I've always loved music, and I've always promoted music. And about 15 years ago, I decided to give back to the community I was raised in."
His Suits, Boots, and Bluegrass concerts for charity in Meridian featured folk, Americana, and bluegrass acts. Barnacastle's experiences producing those events made him reconsider his professional life, which was tied to a business that was becoming highly regulated and complex.
"I just felt like I needed to get out of the industry and do something that would allow my spirit to flow again. Then I thought, I've got all these contacts in the music industry; why don't I do something with that?"
This wonderfully illustrated and beautifully executed magazine, The Bluegrass Standard, is the result of that re-orienting, providing extensive articles and interviews that feature the broad spectrum of bluegrass music, from stories about the founding fathers to profiles of musicians exploring the borders of the genre. There's no disagreement about the publisher's founding principle for the magazine.
"When I say free, it truly is free," Barnacastle explained. "Everybody thinks there's a catch. But you can go to our website, or you can go to ISSUU.com, one of our publishers, and you can read the magazine every month totally free. You don't have to do anything—though we'd love for people to give us their email address so we can send a digital copy to them."
As the cliché goes, one thing leads to another. Barnacastle realized his experience as an entrepreneur and publisher positioned him to create a new record company that would redefine the relationship between the artist and their label.
"I wanted Turnberry Records to be more artist-based," Barnacastle explained. "When an artist brings their product to us, we want them to have full control and the opportunity to sit down and talk about where they want to go with their project.” Turnberry Records allows the artists to determine what they want, how they want it to get out there, and whom they want to get it to.
"A lot of these other labels will say, 'You've got to use my studio. This is what you're gonna pay. This is what you're gonna do, and we're gonna get it out there, and you're gonna get X amount of dollars from it.' And with some labels—the bigger labels in country, the huge labels—you get about a 16 percent return. But we put it on a 50-50 basis with Turnberry."
Though based in California, Turnberry Records is far from a regional label. Nu-Blu features the dynamic husband and wife duo of Daniel and Carolyn Routh of Siler City, N.C. Darren Beachley of Maryland performed with Bill Harrell and the Virginians and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver before beginning his solo career. Prairie Wildfire is three bluegrass-playing sisters from Wyoming. Greg Blake, whose music is grounded in his Appalachian roots, was an IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year nominee in 2022.
"I know this is kind of crazy," Barnacastle continued, "but when I listen to a song by a certain artist, and it moves me, and I feel the music, it can make me weep and cry. That's when you feel the artist is putting every bit of their effort and soul into their music. And that's the kind of artists that we love to promote and work with."
Barnacastle is incredibly excited about a project featuring Bobby Osborne performing songs he's always loved but never recorded.
Other recent Turnberry innovations include Get It Played, an economical promotion and distribution service for artists of many genres, and Strings Division. This teaching program offers "bluegrass to blues" lessons that educators can easily and affordably implement.
Barnacastle is not only making a lot of noise in the bluegrass world—he's known for making a spectacle of himself at the annual IBMA gathering in Raleigh, N.C.
"In 2016, when we showed up in socks that were chicken legs, people were just asking, 'Who is this crazy guy?'"
Each year his colorful, feather-full costumes have grown more elaborate. Barnacastle works months before the event with a designer to be sure he'll have something eye-catching to wear in the exhibit hall.
"I feel like when I go to conventions or festivals, I'm going to have fun. I want people to enjoy the music and the people around them and be happy to be there. And the costumes are a way to do that. It's a branding thing for us,” said Barnacastle, dubbed the Elton John of Bluegrass. “But when it comes to the end of the day, people know we're The Bluegrass Standard and Turnberry Records. I'm having a good time, and that's what I want other people to understand. Enjoy life. Life is way too short."