Gary Barker: In Memoriam

The Gary We Knew

By Lisa Astrella

Gary Barker was my partner in bliss and folly, as we pursued a mutual adoration for bluegrass music with our band Loose Cannon Bluegrass. What started around a kitchen table, ended up taking us all over this gorgeous state, and on to Kentucky, where we played at ROMP in honor of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. With Gary behind the scenes tirelessly booking, organizing and maintaining a web site, we grew the band over more than 8 years, and had the privilege of working with many talented and generous musicians.

Gary first arrived on the Colorado bluegrass scene in 2004. We all met him at the White Fence Farm Thursday night jam, back in the day. He had retired from teaching and had relocated here from Saginaw, Michigan, with his wife, Jean. They followed their daughter Molly, who was just starting her family. We soon discovered that he was a great Dobro player, and a quick study. We would later learn the full and formidable depth of this remarkable human being.  

There was not a corner of Gary’s brain that he didn’t fill with knowledge, and then share it with anyone who had the good sense to listen. He wasted not a moment on this Earth, as an educator, scientist, athlete, musician, devoted husband and father. A former Teacher of the Year, he built his own seismometer and regularly kept up with tectonic activity around the globe. Gary could and would give us updates on earth movements that hadn’t yet hit the news.  

We spent a lot of road time, travelling from gig to gig, and there is a stretch of highway, between Colorado Springs and Cañon City, that will forever remind me of him. He explained the rock formations on either side of the road, and why one was older than the other, by so many million years. Yet another thing he knew off the top of his head. Colorado was a geologic playground for him, with boundless opportunities to learn and explore.

I remember one conversation in which he explained the statistical improbability of ever being born, and how so many things had to go right over a multitude of generations. It was part of a commencement address he used to give to the thousands of students he’d influenced along the way. He said, “Against the odds, you were born. You’ve already hit the jackpot.” The unspoken extrapolation was, “Now, what are you going to do with it?”

Self-effacing, humble, quietly doing the work, while encouraging those around him to shine, that was Gary. He dedicated his life to the betterment of others. He had a great sense of humor, a laugh that seemed to start in his bones, and quirky little habits that would spring out of him when he was particularly happy or excited, like rapidly rubbing his hands together, or raking his picks across the Dobro strings. 

Family was the world to Gary. Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, he was the baby, behind older siblings Marvin and Mary. He and Marvin had a bond that is only cultivated after a lifetime of fun-loving chicanery. They perfected the art of the “non-joke” which is something that the dismayed listener would have to experience, in order to fully understand. For them, it was a knee-slapping, howling good time.   

With Gary, we got the gift of the whole Barker clan: Jean, and their daughters Molly and Corrie, granddaughters Audrey, Annika and Layla Jean, as well as sons-in-law Eric and Adjmal. They are the silent heroes in this story. They supported us at our gigs, and were his life, his backbone, his strength, during the grueling months, his inner circle that propped him up when it all seemed too much. They will need time and healing of their own.

Gary, this is how your band mates describe you:

  • Marte Meyer: Steadfast, kind and smart
  • Eric Grace: Dependable, Professional, Gifted songwriter
  • Ernie Martinez: Warm, Humorous, Genuine
  • Jim Fischer: Engaging, Enlightening, Encouraging

Gary, my dear friend, we hit the double-jackpot; first for having been born, and again for having known you. Yes, you. See you in the starscape.

With much love,
Lisa Lombard Astrella