Early Pickin’

The virtuosity of guitarist Presley Barker

He shares a surname with the king of rock’n’roll. But neither Presley Barker’s music nor his moniker pays homage to Elvis. His parents were at a loss to find something unique, “so they just came up with Presley,” the 11-year-old guitarist says.

Inclined toward bluegrass, Presley is already busy filling his room at home in Traphill, North Carolina, with awards and trophies, including first place in the guitar competition at last year’s Galax Fiddlers Convention. He’s also jammed on stage with Ricky Skaggs in Houston, played MerleFest and has gotten to study and play with bluegrass titans Uwe and Jens Kruger, who have high praise for his focus and skills.

Barker’s mom, Julie, says her son has always loved music. “Since he was old enough to ask for some kind of toy, he wanted a trumpet, he wanted a flute, he wanted a drum — anything that made noise,” she says.

When Presley was 4, his parents got him a small banjo, but his guitar teacher advised them to start him on a child-sized guitar instead. “Took that little guitar, started learning how to read music, and he just picked it right up,” Julie says proudly.

So well that he’s made some influential friends, including renowned guitarist/luthier Wayne Henderson, who has built instruments for Doc Watson, Gillian Welch and Eric Clapton and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1995. Henderson’s also a world-class fingerpicker who travels the globe showing off his skills  Henderson thought so much of Presley’s skills that he built him his own custom guitar. “a beautiful D-42 Dreadnought Brazilian rosewood, Appalachian spruce top,” Presley says. “It sounds great, I really love it. He put my name on the seventeenth fret, in abalone.”

But all the flash is not on the instrument.

“Presley plays nice and clean,” Henderson says, and Jens Kruger has said that the young picker is already developing his own style even when he covers others’ works. “His versions are distinct, his version,” Kruger says, “It’s very charming.” The brothers saw his skills close up when Presley attended their music camp in Wilkesboro. “I got taught by Uwe, great teacher, he was teaching some on improvising, and stage presence and how to use a microphone,” he recalls.

Some of his skills seem intuitive, including his fingerpicking style: His picking hand floats above the strings. “I just started doing that from the beginning,” Presley says. “Never even thought much about it, never even tried to anchor my thumb or my pinkie.”

In addition to his solo gig, Presley works with other young pickers in the Shawdowgrass band. “We first met at a fiddlers convention, we’d kinda been jamming and stuff, and we said well we ought to get a band together,” Presley says. Kitty Amaral, 14, doubles on fiddle and vocals, 11-year-old Kyser George is on bass and vocals, 15-year-old Clay Russell on banjo, 16-year-old Luke Morris on mandolin and vocals, and Presley on guitar and vocals.

He is content with his career, happy hanging out with Henderson and playing with Shadowgrass, as well as his teacher, national banjo and guitar contest champion Steve Lewis, who usually accompanies him on gigs.

For all his technical prowess, Presley is still a kid, and his musical future is a long journey he’s just started. “I might want to go to a music academy or something,” he says. And continue to be really something.  OH

—Grant Britt

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