Like countless musicians before him, Texas singer-songwriter Jack Barksdale started playing guitar as a kid, and quickly became obsessed. He was 9 when he debuted his first original composition at a Luckenbach, Texas picking circle, shocking his parents, Clara and Brent, who had no idea he was writing songs. Before long, he was sharing stages with some of the Lone Star State’s top blues, folk and Americana talents, learning his way around recording studios and fearlessly introducing himself to performers he admired at gatherings such as the 30A Songwriters Festival and the Folk Alliance International conference.
As his skills expanded and his reputation grew, Barksdale made connections. Memphis couple Amy LaVere and Will Sexton (a fellow Texan) took him under their wing. Nashville singer-songwriter, guitar wizard and producer Will Kimbrough invited him to join a Songwriters in the Round showcase with Kevin Gordon and Brigitte DeMeyer at the world-renowned Bluebird Café; Korby Lenker attended, then suggested they write together. So did Texas talents Jeff Plankenhorn and Billy Hartman (he’s done Zoom sessions with both). At 12, he played esteemed La Grange, Texas, listening room the Bugle Boy. Afterward, founder and executive director Lane Gosnay offered him the Bugle Boy Foundation’s Talent Trust Award, which had not been presented since 2014. (Previous recipients include Kat Edmonson and John Fullbright, who earned a Grammy nomination for the album he released with award funds.)
That was last year. Yes, Jack was 12 when he earned the award. He’s 13 now, but still sings, and speaks, with the guileless voice of a boy not yet in the throes of puberty. Thin and slight, with straight blond hair draping over his slim shoulders, he’s just now reaching the point where he’s not dwarfed by his larger guitars. Not quite sure if his collection is up to 10, or 11 or 12, he admits, “I keep losing track.” But his mother, Clara, says that number is conservative, which means Barksdale likely has more guitars than years on earth.
But his chronological and physical age are highly inaccurate measures of who he is; he may have been a kid at 9, but Barksdale is what philosophical types like to call an old soul. He cites fellow Fort Worth-area native Townes Van Zandt as a major influence, along with John Hartford, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Hubert Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf. His knowledge of those artists, evident in his playing and writing, is part of what earns him the respect of players like Kimbrough, Lenker, Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll and Ray Wylie Hubbard, who steered Barksdale toward a slide brand that would fit his small fingers (he was using a socket wrench piece). His YouTube channel is filled with clips of him performing with them or covering — and discussing — their songs (along with his now-on-hiatus “Guitar Slingers” webcast, several “Quarantine Blanket Fort Sessions” recorded inside his homemade sanctuary, and some outstanding videos created for original songs like “Widow of the Wind”).
Barksdale has insights and awareness far beyond people twice his age, and he’s able to put them into songs that touch listeners, even if he couldn’t possibly have experienced everything he sings about. But being able to tell stories is what writing and singing songs is all about, and Barksdale knows how to do that, both in song and in-between songs — an all-important skill for any artist supported only by a guitar, a mic and as much witty repartee as they can muster. Barksdale was slated to share his talents at this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival before the coronavirus pandemic halted everything — including recording plans for his next album.
That’s what prompted him to release the song he wrote in November with Lenker, titled, “Friends and Strangers.” Barksdale recorded his guitar and vocals in Weatherford, Texas, where he lives, and sent his tracks to Kimbrough, who added guitar, bass, tambourine and harmony vocals. The result is a gentle, sweet ode to the value of connections, with lines like If I had my way all the strangers would be/Friends in the end.
Lenker’s priceless description of their session includes this recollection of when he first heard Barksdale at a festival in Atlanta: “During an 11 p.m. set in which most of the audience was three beers or more into the night, Jack sang a song about his fear of losing his mom when she was diagnosed with cancer a few years back (she’s OK now). Then he introduced another number, saying, “Well I really want to write a blues song, but I’m only 12 and I don’t really know what the blues are, but then I started thinking that might be just another kind of blues,” and then he proceeded to sing a song called ‘I Haven’t Had the Blues Yet,’ complete with swampy slide bar and a melody bent as a crooked nail. ‘I Haven’t Had the Blues Yet,’ is a blues only a kid could sing. The man knows himself.”
Barksdale says of their November session, “It was really fun. We just sat down and started talking. I met him a couple times before, so It was pretty cool. And we went to the living room and got out our notebooks and our guitars.”
As Lenker recalls in a Patreon post, “Five minutes after he arrived, the guitars were out and we started talking. ‘I usually like to find a melody first,’ Jack said. ‘That sounds like a great way to start,’ I said. ‘What do you think we should write about?’”
Barksdale remembers pulling a sad line out of his notebook, but Lenker countered, “I’m not really feeling sad today.” He suggested writing a song about friends.
“It came really easily,” Barksdale says. “If either of us put out a line or something that the other one didn’t like, it wasn’t, like, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ It was more of just like, ‘I was thinking more like this.’ It flowed very well.”
Then he confesses, “That was my first co-write where we actually finished the song.”
Lenker calls it “one of the easiest co-writes I’ve ever had.”
“Jack, with that unspoiled confidence peculiar to the young, charged into any and all ideas like a horse after horse cake,” he adds. “I was there to wrangle, and I did my best.
“What’s more, there is something about the way Jack sings that just makes the words ring true.
Songwriting voices don’t follow the same rules as traditional singers. When I listen to someone sing a song they wrote the only thing I ask myself is ‘Do I Believe You?’ Lots of great singer songwriters have B-plus voices, but that’s precisely part of the charm. Songs are not supposed to be perfect, because people are not supposed to be perfect, they’re only supposed to be true.
Jack sings true.”
And he expects to be doing it for some time to come. He’s looking forward to recording that album, his second full-length (he’s already released an EP and a live album, plus singles) and playing shows as soon as he can.
“I just want to keep playing music and recording songs,” Barksdale says, “as long as it’s what I want to do.”
“Friends and Strangers” will be available Friday, but you can hear it here first.
Don’t forget to pre-save it on Spotify.