HARD-DRIVING SOLOIST OF WESTERN SWING
By Buddy McPeters -originally published in GUITAR PLAYER Magazine September 1983 Vol 17, No.9. Also Reprinted by permission in R.T. 'Windy' Wood 1996 book "Wood Chips -The Loves of R.T. Windy Wood - A Personal Collection"
Sep. 1983 Guitar Player
Article by Buddy McPeters
This article appeared with many mistakes and errors on the part of the editors of Guitar Player Magazine. Here is a corrected
Western Swing King Bob Wills frequently referred to Junior Barnard as "fat boy," "booger man," and "our floor show."
But it wasn't Junior's 230-pound figure that often compelled dancing couples to stop and listen in disbelief. His hard-hitting electric guitar style, complete with distorted tone, violent bends, and scorching runs - all extremely advanced for the '30s and '4Os - heralded the techniques and sounds commonly associated with contemporary rock and roll. In the words of jazz master Jimmy Wyble, "Junior was a highly original player. He had an aggressive, hard-swinging style that was like rock and roll for its time. Junior was a great guitarist."
At various times throughout Junior Barnard's relatively short career (which spanned from about 1935 to his sudden death in 1951), he played with fiddler/vocalist Bob Wills' Texas Playboys and groups led by members of Wills' family. (Because Wills was so popular, he often had auxiliary bands headed by relatives to handle surplus work; many of the Playboys started out in these groups.) Known for their blend of hillbilly, jazz, blues, hokum, Hawaiian, and Tex-Mex influences, Wills' bands produced many of western swing's greatest players, including mandolinists Johnny Gimble and Tiny Moore;
*NON-pedal steel guitarists Leon McAuliffe, Noel Boggs, and Herb Remington; and guitarists Jimmy Wyble, Eldon Shamblin, and Junior Barnard.
But although Junior had the most flamboyant style of any Wills guitarist, he is probably the least known because he was with the band for only brief periods; Barnard rarely stayed in one place for very long. "Junior would get discontent for no apparent reason and just up and leave," Eldon Shamblin explains. "In a little while he'd be back and Bob would rehire him. He was just that sort of guy."
Unlike Eldon Shamblin, who to this day plays *a more laid-back, jazz and swing style, Junior was a go-for-broke soloist whose incredible technique featured startling runs, rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs, and even contrapuntal lines. "One of the things Bob used to say was 'get it,' which meant to come on as strong as you could," Jimmy Wyble recalls. "Junior had the ability to turn it on and keep it there." Barnard was such an exciting soloist because he rarely played things safe. If he would get lost during a chorus, Bob would tease him by saying, "Junior's pony throwed him. You're meeting yourself comin' back." But Junior could also play in a subdued manner, especially when backing up a singer.
Although Barnard wasn't as sophisticated an accompanist as Shamblin, he had a strong rhythmic sense and used substitute chords to make progressions flow smoothly. Wills depended on Junior's ability to keep time, and once after a shaky start he was corrected by Junior's steady-driving rhythm on an "air shot" [live broadcast]. Wills responded, "Thanks, Junior. Old Junior sure pulled us out of a hole."
Barnard was a loud guitarist who had an overdriven tube sound decades before it became widely popular with rock guitarists. His main guitar, a blond Epiphone Emperor arch-top (occasionally Junior used a Gibson ES-150), was dubbed
"*my young radio station," because it had so many wires and controls added on. Although Barnard first electrified his instrument with a DeArmond pickup, he later added another unit from a steel guitar. The two pickups were wired out of phase, and each was amplified through a separate channel. (Junior used both a Fender Pro with a 15" speaker and an Epiphone amplifier.) In addition, Barnard employed a volume pedal, for which he probably got the idea from steel guitarists such as McAuliffe and Boggs. "In those days in the Wills band," Shamblin remembers, "you never knew when you'd get a solo. Bob would just point his fiddle bow at you and say, 'Take it away.' Junior didn't have time to turn the volume up, so you can see that the pedal was a time-saving device."
It's not surprising that jazz guitar great Charlie Christian had certain stylistic traits in common with western swing guitarists - rhythmic drive, horn-like tone, and a distinct blues influence. While Barnard was playing over Tulsa's KTUL radio station in 1935, Christian, Boggs, and Shamblin were working as staff guitarists for Oklahoma City stations. They may have listened to and been influenced by one another, a possibility often overlooked by Christian biographers. Noel Boggs even played with Charlie and his brother Edward, an accomplished jazz pianist. Although it is impossible to determine the degree of influence that Barnard, Christian, Boggs, and Shamblin had on each other, it's clear that Junior Barnard was an early innovator on the electric guitar whose influence is still being felt to this day.
*Lester Robert Barnard, 'Junior' as he was called, was born into a musical family in Coweta, Oklahoma, on December 17, 1920. He was named after his father, Hurl Lester Barnard, and his uncle Robert who both played fiddle and often performed at barn dances and house parties. When Junior was 13 or 14, he started accompanying his dad on guitar. Later he began singing and playing the fiddle.
When Junior was 15, he started playing acoustic guitar with bands around Tulsa, Oklahoma. In addition, he had his own radio show on KTUL and worked as a staff musician backing up groups such as Patti Page And Her Musical Pages, from Claremore, Oklahoma. After a stint with bandleader Art Davis And The Rhythm Riders, Junior was hired by Bob Wills to play with the Lonestar Rangers (a group led by the fiddler's father, who was known as
*Uncle John Wills). In 1936 Wills formed the Sons Of The West and put his cousin, Son Lansford, in charge. Junior was the guitarist. After being based around Amarillo, Texas, for nearly a year, Junior quit and returned to Tulsa. Shortly after that he was working at KTUL again and bought his first electric guitar. Wills' bassist, Joe Ferguson, recalls that Junior
*temporarily replaced Eldon Shamblin in Dave Edwards' Original Alabama Boys who had left to join Bob Wills in November of 1937.
In 1938 Bob organized brother Johnnie Lee Wills' first band, the Rhythmaires, who called upon Junior. After about six months, most of the members were funneled into a band headed by Bob's father, called Uncle Johnny And His Young Five. The Young Five didn't last long and was forged into a group called
*Johnnie Lee Wills and his Boys, which lasted through the War years and recorded several sides for Decca in 1941. Barnard was a regular member, except when Bob called on him to be with the Playboys. One such instance was in the fall of 1942, when Wills teamed with vocalist Bing Crosby for a campaign to boost the sale of war bonds. For the sake of the War effort, a one-of-a-kind live version of their hit "New San Antonio Rose" was auctioned and brought a bid of over $35,000.
In the early stages of World War II, Bob Wills enlisted in the Army and temporarily disbanded the Playboys. Johnnie Lee and some of the Playboys inherited most of Bob's work, including his place at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa and an afternoon spot on KVOO. Junior received a deferment because of his excessive weight and went to work in a California defense plant. In 1943 he briefly returned to Johnnie Lee's band, but left after a short while to work as a welder for a Houston defense manufacturer.
After being released by the Army in *July 1943, Wills reformed the Playboys and relocated in California's San Fernando Valley so he could be closer to Hollywood's recording and movie industry. (During this time some of the Playboys appeared in several westerns, which Wills referred to as seven-day wonders because they were made so quickly.) Wills' new band included Noel Boggs and Jimmy Wyble. In 1945 the band moved to Fresno, and since Wyble had stayed behind, Junior took over the Playboys' guitar spot. By late 1945, Wills and company were making the Fresno Roundup series of radio transcriptions broadcast over KMJ.
*[Ed. Note: A radio transcription was a 16" recording of a performance that was used for subsequent programs.] During this same period they cut additional transcriptions that were broadcast over California's Central Valley by the McClatchy family, who owned a network of radio stations spanning from Sacramento to Fresno.
Wills, Barnard, and the Playboys began making the excellent Tiffany Transcriptions in San Francisco in early 1946, which have been recently reissued. Because they were recorded live, Junior's work was more open and unreserved than the Columbia discs Wills' band was cutting at the same time. An excellent example of Junior's jazz abilities from this period is "I Hear You Talkin'," which featured a harmonized twin-guitar head played by Barnard and Boggs, and Junior's scorching final bridge reminiscent of Charlie Christian. And during the recording of "Black Out Blues"
*Wills encouraged Barnard to, "Ahhh, get it low, Junior!" and Tommy Duncan interjects, "One of them 'coal mine' choruses! Low down and dirty." But "Fat Boy Rag" is probably Junior's most famous tune from the Tiffany sessions. "Once, when we were doin' that stuff for Tiffany up in 'Frisco," Bob's brother Luke Wills recalls, "Bob turns to Junior without any warning and says, 'Now friends, we've got a special little tune from that fat boy Junior Barnard and his guitar and it's called "Fat Boy Rag." Okay, start it, Junior.' He just took off. That's where it came from - first take."
In about late 1946, Junior left the Playboys and went to work for Luke Wills and his Rhythmbusters. Many of the recordings from this period featured Barnard at his wildest. He was back with the Playboys in 1947 when they relocated to a new home base near Sacramento known as Wills Point, which had apartments and various recreational facilities.
Tommy Duncan, who for 15 years had been Wills' vocalist, started his own band with some of the Playboys in late 1948.
*Junior reportedly worked with Tommy's band when he made appearances in Fresno. Afterwards he played a short time with fiddler
*Jesse Ashlock, a Wills veteran, Junior returned to Fresno in 1949 and formed his own band, The Radio Gang. They played at a ballroom known as The Fresno Barn, and were featured on radio stations KMJ, KYNO, and KSMA. Junior also worked with several other Fresno-based bands. The Radio Gang was quite successful, but in early 1951 The Barn was sold, and the band moved to the Marigold Ballroom, owned by Musicians Local 210. Unfortunately, this job didn't last long, and Junior began to look for a new hall.
Tragedy struck during a trip to find a place to play in Riverdale, a tiny community south of Fresno. Junior Barnard was seriously injured in an automobile accident and died at Fresno County General Hospital on April 15, 1951.
Recently, many fine musicians have paid tribute to Junior Barnard's genius. Ray Benson, lead guitarist with Asleep At The Wheel, recorded a live version of "Fat Boy Rag" [Texas Gold, Capitol, ST-11441], the tune most commonly associated with the Oklahoma guitarist. Merle Haggard, Eldon Shamblin, and Tiny Moore recorded the song on Tiny Moore Music [Kaleidoscope (Box 0, El Cerrito, CA 94530), F-12]. And Roy Nichols acknowledged Barnard's influence by quoting Junior's licks on Merle Haggard's version of the Wills classic "Bring It On Down To My House Honey."
Junior Barnard was one of the first to fuse elements of jazz, country, rockabilly, and rock and roll into an exciting style that was in many ways years ahead of its time. His brother Gene, also an accomplished guitarist, concludes: "I don't think people realize that Junior was playing today's type of popular music years before anyone else. He was playing rock and roll years before it had a name."
Authors note: A complete version of the Junior Barnard text 'as written' in 1983 prior to publication in Guitar Player Magazine has been graciously published in The Western Swing Journal which is put out by
Jesse Morris in Colorado Springs, CO.
email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to Buddy McPeters
for his research and writing
of this fine biography.