When I see young children hailed as musical prodigies in the bluegrass world, I usually wonder if their early technical skill will translate into a true superstar career, with not just the knowledge to arrange notes in a complicated manner, but to play with heart and feeling, and to add their own stamp to a musical style steeped in tradition. Ricky Skaggs is perhaps the best illustration of the latter type of musician, while Chris Thile and Sierra Hull might be good, more recent examples.
There’s no doubt that Presley Barker, an eleven-year-old guitarist from Traphill, North Carolina, has the technical part down pat. His mentors and teachers have included frequent contest champions Steve Lewis and Wayne Henderson, and his accomplishments include winning first place in the guitar competition at the 2015 Galax Fiddlers Convention at the ripe old age of ten. Around the same time, Barker recorded an album, appropriately named Just Ten, featuring some of his favorite contest tunes and bluegrass standards. Joined by a full band including Steve Lewis (guitar and banjo), Scott Freeman (mandolin and fiddle), and Josh Scott (bass), Barker is given plenty of room to show off his knowledge of the guitar.
The album opens up with a skillful version of Alabama Jubilee featuring guest guitarist Wayne Henderson. Barker’s reading of the old fiddle tune is very obviously inspired by Henderson’s style, and will likely be a big hit at contests for years to come. Freeman’s energetic and enjoyable mandolin and fiddle add a bit of liveliness to the tune. Henderson also guests on Steel Guitar Rag, which is performed here as an acoustic guitar showpiece – Henderson and Barker on lead guitars, with Lewis and Scott offering support on rhythm guitar and bass.
Grey Eagle has a nice bounce to it, though it’s a bit mechanical, while Black Mountain Rag is solidly performed and shows off a Doc Watson influence. There are a couple of other Watson numbers included; Nothing to It is one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album, with a smoother and more melodic feel than some of the other tunes, while bonus track Nashville Pickin’ was the song Barker performed at Galax last year. Reflecting that contest environment, it features simply Barker on lead guitar, Lewis on rhythm guitar, and Scott on bass.
Three songs feature vocals – My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darling, Sunny Side of the Mountain, and the hymn Just a Closer Walk with Thee – and Barker sings lead on each of them. These numbers are arranged more like regular, full-band performances, though Barker is still given the opportunity to highlight his guitar skills in a solo. Sunny Side of the Mountain is probably the best of these, with a fun, lively feel. Barker seems to channel the high lonesome, first generation style of singing. He has good control over his voice, and his phrasing and tone will likely continue to develop as he grows older.
Now 11, Barker is certainly to be commended for his dedication to acquiring skill on his chosen instrument, and he has obviously listened and watched closely to his mentors, particularly Lewis and Henderson. His playing style will serve him well as he continues to enter competitions, and hopefully he will keep expanding his repertoire to learn more about all of bluegrass music’s most prominent guitarists and their command of rhythm and melody.
For more information on Presley Barker, visit his Facebook at www.facebook.com/presleybarkermusic. His new album is available from several online music retailers.