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Barksdale: “Listening to other musicians helps me a lot.” Photo by D. Anson Brady

In November 2016, Brent and Clara Barksdale were traveling through the scenic Texas Hill Country on vacation with their two children. Along their route, they stopped in Luckenbach, the small rustic town immortalized in song by Waylon and Willie (and the Boys), to grab a souvenir t-shirt. Their 9-year-old son Jack was a classic country music obsessive, like his parents, and he wanted to have his picture taken in front of the sign marking the city limits while holding his beloved Seagull guitar. A local, observing the impromptu photo op, remarked to the family, “You must be here for the pickers’ circle.” 

The Barksdales had never heard of a pickers’ circle, the cheerful tradition that takes place at dusk behind the town’s 150-year-old general store/post office, but they were intrigued. The family soon found itself sitting beneath an ancient live oak in a ring made of gray-haired, denim-clad, guitar-wielding townsfolk. The group of eight or so all played together in a chorus of acoustic guitars, taking turns at solos and singing timeless country, folk, and bluegrass tunes. Before long, young Jack found himself in the middle of the circle, leading the others in the only song he claimed to know, Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose.” Onlookers snapped photos, took video, and cheered as the young boy performed, impressively holding his own among the experienced pickers. 

The Barksdales were eager to get back on the road after the song was finished, despite the other players egging on Jack to play another number. Then, much to his parent’s surprise, Jack began strumming again, this time, a song unknown to them.

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“He did an incredible job,” Brent proudly recalled of his son’s spontaneous performance that night. “We were just blown away. We didn’t even know he had another song that he could play. Then, before we knew it, he started playing a song that he’d written himself without us knowing.”

Through pickin’ enthusiast networks, word of the impressive evening spread back home to Weatherford, and Jack was soon recruited to join local pickers’ circles. Fast-forward just 16 months after that evening in the Hill Country, and the young guitar slinger now feels at home on a proper stage. He can effortlessly perform up to three-hour-long sets, boasting a repertoire of at least 80 songs, including more than two dozen originals. He’s often joined onstage by notable local Americana musicians, such as fiddle player Marion Brackney and double-bassist Tommy Luke.

“The local musicians have been so welcoming,” Clara beamed. “They’ll come over and sit in our living room and jam with Jack or try out song ideas. It’s been so great to have them mentoring him.”

Young Jack is about to officially release his third single, “I Hope I Make Her Happy,” with a video likely to follow. The new song, a jaunty skiffle-type number, was produced by local folk/roots crooner Keegan McInroe and recorded at Green Audio Productions in Fort Worth. The track features the aforementioned Brackney and Luke on fiddle and upright, a sultry Mary Ford-style harmony by vocalist Jackie Darlene, and a sizzling harmonica part by Gary Grammer. The tune will be debuted at Fort Worth Live on Saturday.

“It’s a fun little breakup song,” Brent said. “It’s fictional, of course. He’s obviously never had a girlfriend.”

Jack, now 10, is thin and reedy. He sports oversized Texas flag cowboy boots, and his impish face is partially blocked by long flaxen hair that hangs beneath a signature red beanie. With his boyish appearance and high-pitched, pre-adolescent voice, Jack strikes an image in no small contrast to the weathered, whiskey-breathed cowpunchers who are his heroes. But that’s not to say that his songs read any less genuine. Substitute Willie’s nasally drawl into one of Jack’s songs, like the haunting “Widow of Wind,” and it would fit right alongside any of the Red-Headed Stranger’s classics. It’s no small feat for a kid whose day is punctuated by math tests and the occasional video game –– things that occupy most pre-teens –– to channel the real, often hard, life experience normally required of veteran songsmiths to inform their craft.

“I can just write a song about a breakup after listening to, like, Hank Williams,” Jack said. “Listening to other musicians helps me a lot. Even if you haven’t experienced the thing they’re talking about, you can kind of feel the emotions they feel when you listen to it.” 

8pm on Sat w/Keegan McInroe, Jackie Darlene, Tommy Luke, and Gary Grammer at Fort Worth Live, 306 Houston St, FW. $5. All ages. 817-945-8890.

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