“One of the things Bob (Wills) used to say was ‘get it,’ which meant to come on as strong as you could. Junior Barnard had the ability to turn it on and keep it there. He had an aggressive, hard-swinging style that was like rock ‘n’ roll for its time. Junior was a great guitarist.”
—Jimmy Wyble, Texas Playboys guitarist
–Bob Wills, “Fat Boy Rag”
Bob Wills was the king of western swing from the late 1930s through the late ’40s, and was still a decent draw into the early ’50s. However, his creative and commercial peak was the immediate postwar era and during that fertile period, Bob’s Epiphonic minister of lowdown and dirty was the guitarist born Lester Robert Bernard. Bob occasionally called him “Fat Boy,” but most people just called him Junior.
Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys – Fat Boy Rag
Tiffany Transcriptions, Vol. 5
Recorded May 20, 1946
Solos: Junior Barnard, electric guitar (:00-:31); Millard Kelso, piano (:31-:55); Joe Holley, fiddle (:56-1:19); Roy Honeycutt, steel guitar (1:20-1:51), Barnard, electric guitar (1:52-2:27)
Hard to believe this was recorded in 1946. Outside of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and maybe Bob Dunn (Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies) on steel, guitarists didn’t typically gouge out huge chunks of gnarled lead guitar. Texas Playboys guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Jimmy Wyble were uniquely gifted, but more or less extended Charlie Christian‘s ideas, offering solos with CC’s clean fluidity and horn-like phrasing. Barnard was different. You can hear that he liked bop, but he mixed it with a dirty blues feel that anticipates Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, and his liberal use of distortion and “ugly” chord voicings cuts a beeline straight to the guitar heroes of the late ’60s.
Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys – Bob Wills’ Boogie (Intro riff/Barnard solo)
Essential Bob Wills: 1935-47
Recorded September 5, 1946
Tell me this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, a full decade before that term gained a cultural foothold. The song opens with Barnard and Tiny Moore (on electric mandolin) riffing in harmony, a twin lead style that Wills invented in 1945-46 when he couldn’t afford a horn section. So, he used Shamblin, Barnard, Wyble, Moore, and whoever was playing steel (usually Noel Boggs or Herb Remington) as his horn section. This innovation bore fruit 25 years later when Duane Allman and Dickey Betts made twin guitar leads a signature sound of the Allman Brothers Band, both men openly acknowledging the Bob Wills influence.
The intro gives way to a staccato piano/guitar trade off that sounds suspiciously like it escaped from “Great Balls Of Fire,” despite the fact Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t record the song for another 11 years. Barnard then takes off on a solo that again sounds like Chuck Berry was paying close attention. All this in a mere :42.
Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys – Blackout Blues (Junior Barnard solo)
Tiffany Transcriptions, Vol. 1
Recorded December 30, 1947
Tommy Duncan totally nails it when he calls Junior’s licks “coal mine choruses” because they’re “low down and dirty.” Amen brother. And they’re dirty in a way that suggests Hubert Sumlin and Ike Turner, not just rockabillies like Scotty Moore and Perkins. This is the genius of Junior Barnard. His appeal transcends genre, race, and taste.
Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys – Texas Playboy Rag (Barnard solo)
Tiffany Transcriptions, Vol. 9
Recorded April 15, 1946
Listening to this song, I’m reminded of what Buddy McPeters wrote in the Sept 1983 issue of Guitar Player: “Junior was a go-for-broke soloist whose incredible technique featured startling runs, rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs, and even contrapuntal lines. 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.'”
Here’s the only existing footage of Barnard playing with Bob Wills, at least to my knowledge. He throws down the raunch from 1:05-1:20, a chunky microcosm of the JB sound. And yes, I apologize in advance for the annoyingly loud logo splash at the end of the video.
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – Goodbye Liza Jane
Sadly, the Junior Barnard story ends in tragedy. On April 15, 1951, while scouting for places to play in Riverdale, California (south Fresno County), Barnard and his brother-in-law, Billie Earl Fitzgerald were killed in an automobile accident when their car collided with six members of the Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) track team. Fitzgerald died instantly and Barnard died five hours later at Fresno County Hospital. He was 30 years old.