Twenty-four years ago, Street Arabs guitarist and Carnival Barker's Ice Creams owner Aaron Barker lost his grandfather, Hub Barker, to lung cancer. For all those years since, Aaron Barker had been without his grandfather's most prized possessions: his guitars. Until last week.
Hub Barker lived near Oklahoma City and was a regionally known musician who played all sorts of gigs at honky-tonks and arts and crafts fairs. His ability to yodel made his performances memorable. “He could do ‘Cattle Call’ by Eddy Arnold like you wouldn’t believe,” Barker says. Just recently someone asked him if he had a recording of his grandfather covering the tune, but he only has it on VHS.
Hub had a day job at Southwest Airlines and Barker has fond memories of his grandfather flying him to Oklahoma City from Dallas over the summers. Barker saw him perform at the Oklahoma Opry several times, where he was a regular. He has a video of his grandfather’s last performance at the Opry on video. “He was dying of cancer so he was getting real religious,” Barker says.
In 1952, when Hub was in his early 20s, he saw Hank Williams perform in Oklahoma City. “It changed his life,” Barker says. “He carried that show with him for the rest of his life.” He definitely remembers his grandmother mentioning Hub buying “that guitar” when they had three kids they could hardly afford to feed. He would eventually put together a multi-track cassette recording studio in his home that Barker remembers seeing in the ‘80s.
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Hub would record in a spare bedroom, make tapes and give them to everyone. Barker once bought a car from a guy in Ardmore, Oklahoma, who knew his grandfather’s music and had some of it on cassette. “It was random,” Barker says. “I can’t even remember how I knew where the car was. But I went to this guy’s trailer to buy a Mazda.” After filling out the paperwork, the man asked him if he was related to Hub Barker. Then he quickly retrieved a cassette of recordings Barker wasn’t familiar with and gave it to him.
Hub played gigs in several different regional areas over the weekends. “He was just one of those guys,” Barker says. “He always took his guitar with him and he was very well-known. Everyone seemed to like him.”
Barker’s step-grandmother and her family quickly lost touch with Barker and his family. Hub was the heart of the family, holding everyone together. “He’s still missed,” Barker says. When he gets together with his family for Thanksgiving or Christmas, Hub always comes up.
Hub’s prized possessions were his guitars, but they went missing when Barker's step-grandmother left the picture. “They just disappeared after he died,” he says.
Chances of seeing these guitars again seemed very slim. When Barker searched for them, the results were always cryptic. A friend of his grandfather’s living in Texas was rumored to have them. But the man was very evasive, refusing to give Barker a straight answer about anything. He also reached out to his step-grandmother, who just told him to stop asking.
A decade passed, but Barker never quit thinking about those guitars. As he got older and became a musician, he realized just how much of an influence his grandfather had been. Barker has childhood memories of his grandfather telling him the guitars would one day be his. He has a Hub Barker record with a photograph of his grandfather proudly holding his favorite guitar on the cover.
“It was always a mystery,” Barker says. He eventually gave up hope of ever finding them, but not before getting a tattoo of the Martin D-76 on his right arm. “I thought this is as close as I would ever get to it,” he says, pointing at the tattoo. He had no idea who had the guitars. For all he knew, they were sold or even destroyed.
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But then he received a message on Facebook from the daughter of his step-grandmother and Hub. “She said, ‘My mom passed away and I found these guitars. They belong to you if you can come get them,'” Barker says.
Barker made the pilgrimage through a thunderstorm, got reacquainted with a long-lost relative, and got his grandfather’s guitars. “It was the greatest day of my life,” Barker says. “I cried and thought a lot about the past. When I opened the guitar cases, I could smell him a little bit. I don’t know if that was imaginary or not, but I caught his scent.”
“These are his guitars!” Barker exclaims, pointing at them in Aqua Lab Sound Recording, where Street Arabs have been rehearsing. One case has his grandfather’s name on it. Since he was a kid, Barker has looked at pictures of his grandfather holding the guitar he is now holding.
“It was like the king dies and you don’t get to be king because your crown’s missing,” Barker says. “And then you finally get your crown and get to be the king. It’s kind of a bad analogy, but it feels that way.”