Remembering Junior Barber (April 12, 1943 – March 8, 2017), who was born as Antoine, was well-known in the dobro community all over the United States. Until the rise of The Gibson Brothers, he was surely the most visible bluegrass performer in Plattsburg, NY. He worked for 7 years with the Gibsons when they were getting started in the early 1990s, and his son, Mike, has worked as bass player with the Gibson Brothers for the past 24 years.
A bluegrass boy to his core, he left the Gibsons when they were threatening to try making a country record, preferring to stick with bluegrass, though he did work later with a western swing band.
Since leaving their group, he had worked with his cousins, Tom and Jewel Venne in Beartracks, and with Gary Ferguson. Following a stroke in 2016, Junior had been unable to play at all, a difficult way for a master musician to end his days.
Eric Gibson tells us that no one is more respected among musicians in their area than Barber, and that he was a professional mentor to them as young pickers.
“He’s a legend up here, one of the first pro musicians me and Leigh ever got to work with. Junior was a super tasteful player, a real tone freak.
He loved the dobro and all the people who played it, and would always stop and talk dobro set up with anybody who approached him. He was a great set up guy.
I always felt that he should have received more attention than he did, but he didn’t care at all for the spotlight.
He helped mold us into becoming better musicians, teaching us the importance of restraint, taste, and tone. Junior was a huge influence on us, and I am very thankful for that.”
Prior to working in bluegrass, Junior had served in the military, spending time in Viet Nam during the war. But family and friends recall that this was a part of his life he never liked to talk about.
Eric says that he didn’t share much about those days when they were traveling together, but that they knew it had affected him deeply.
“He was a quiet, reserved kind of guy, but the soul that would come out in his playing showed how deeply he could feel. He touch a lot of lives up here.”
Throughout his career, Junior liked to play without the use of a capo, insisting there were so many cool tones and notes to be found playing in B and Bb in open G tuning. Eric remembers Junior threatening to throw his capo in the Ohio River, but doesn’t know if he ever did.
About 15 years ago, Barber recorded a solo instrumental album, Steffi’s Waltz, with Alan O’Bryant producing.
Later in his life, he had begun experimenting with a C6 tuning, more commonly used in Hawaiian steel guitar.
Author – John Lawless
Lou Ellen’s Bluegrass posting on April 12, 2016 •
HAPPY BIRTHDAY Junior Barber born, April 12, 1943 talented dobro player and founding member of the Gibson Brothers Band and currently touring with Beartracks. Junior was voted Dobro Player of the Year for five years running by the International Bluegrass Musicians Association. Junior has also been a much sought after studio veteran.
The only musical talent out of six siblings, bluegrass Dobro picker Junior Barber managed to pass on some musical genes to his son, Mike Barber, with whom he plays in the Gibson Brothers. Several of this New York state outfit’s albums were released under the name of the Gibson Brothers Bluegrass Band. The younger Barber — it would be too confusing to call him junior — actually eased into bluegrass slowly, getting into music slightly before his teenage years with a crack at drums, then electric guitar, before finally joining the Gibson Brothers in 1991 playing upright bass. Dad Junior Barber went directly to the electric guitar and it took years of battling to rid him of the rock & roll demons. He was 17 when he first heard the very special sound of the resophonic guitar known as a Dobro. His father owned one of the old metal body models. Antoine Barber Sr. played Hawaiian music and uncle Bill LaPorte also played Hawaiian style on a flat-top guitar. Junior Barber began working out with the instrument some, but he was still sticking to the music one could get away with playing in electric clubs around upstate New York, New England, and the Southern Vermont area. In the ’60s, he began playing banjo in a lot of dance clubs. Musically, he had been veering back and forth between country and garage rock in a string of musical ensembles that went nowhere. Martigraw, a bluegrass band led by Doug Night in the mid-’70s, was his most successful involvement up until that time. Eventually, he sold all his electric instruments, and devoted himself to the Dobro and acoustic music. It was an effort well worth taking if the reaction of the International Bluegrass Musicians Association means anything: the organization nominated him for Dobro Player of the Year for five years running. His influences included great country Dobro players such as Josh Graves as well as the wild Hawaiian virtuoso Sol Hoopi, and he reserves particular affection for many of the resophonic recording artists of the ’20s and ’30s, finding in their creations a type of soulfulness missing from modern, more technically pristine productions. Barber has been involved in teaching in workshop situations, both on tour with the Gibson Brothers and on his own at various bluegrass festivals such as Winterhawk in New York. The Gibson Brothers band is filled out by brothers Eric and Leigh Gibson singing and playing banjo and guitar respectively. Some of the Dobro player’s finest picking is on his Steffi’s Waltz album, in the company of players such as Roland White, Bob Carlin, and Stuart Duncan. Like many good Dobro players, Barber finds himself in demand by various recording groups when a genuine country flavoring is desired for particular tracks.