Blues and jazz aren’t the typical music genres that catch teenagers’ attention, but it struck the right chord for Henderson Bay High School senior Thai Barker.
When he was 8, Barker’s grandparents gave him an acoustic guitar to fulfill a Christmas request, and his father found an employee at their family-owned restaurant to teach him, giving him something to do after school while he was waiting at the eatery.
That practice paid off as the teen now plays with master musicians.
It wasn’t until his father, Thomas, found a new teacher, Jho Blenis, that Barker’s passion for the guitar ignited. Blenis, a prominent Lakewood blues musician and instructor, has played with the likes of Robert Cray and Leon Russell.
Barker said listening to Blenis play blues and jazz created a spark.
“It was emotional and relatable to me,” Barker said. “I got inspired when I listened to Jho playing the soulful music. The genre is the best form of expression.”
Barker started weekly lessons and soon worked to master the art of blues.
Barker’s first public appearance was during a middle school talent show.
“I was so nervous, I didn’t play as well as I knew I could,” he said. “I jacked up my practice after that. It motivated me to do better.”
“He practices up anywhere from six to 12 hours a day,” Thomas Barker said. “I don’t find him often without a guitar in his hands.”
Barker said he loves the way the guitar feels in his hands, and after the years and hours of practice, the instrument feels like another appendage.
“If I could take it to school and play all day, that would be great with me,” he said.
Encouraged to start singing, Barker started vocal lessons with Gail Harris of the Fabulous Wailers. An inductee of the Northwest Music Hall of Fame, Harris took Barker as a student and worked with him for more than a year.
“I am pretty shy, but I started practicing,” Barker said. “I knew I could sing, I just needed to practice and get confident.”
Barker recently started to play guitar and sing at locations around the Sound, including The Swiss, The Spar and Johnny’s Dock.
This past summer, Barker showed up at Dave’s Restaurant in Milton to hear world-renowned guitar player Jerry Miller during one of his regular weekly sessions.
Miller, globally recognized as one of the top 100 guitar players in the world, according to Rolling Stone magazine, is a former member of the 1960s band Moby Grape. He now plays around the South Sound with The Jerry Miller band.
The guitarist knew about Barker’s talent as a guitar player and asked him to join in for the evening.
“I really admire Jerry’s style,” Barker said. “He has a distinct way of playing and knows every position on the fret board. He’s a legend.”
Miller has invited Barker to play with his band on occasion and has offered him a few lessons.
“Thai’s a great player with a unique style,” Miller said. “People should come out to hear him. These days you need to work to be a good musician and not just want to be a rock star. I wish good things for Thai. He’s working hard to pursue his dream.”
Barker said he is inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Robert Cray. He owns three electric and four acoustic guitars, including an acoustic fender on which he enjoys playing the slide.
Along with singing and playing, Barker also hand-makes guitars, something self-taught from YouTube videos and with Blenis. He buys parts and changes out tuners and frets.
A member of the South Sound Blues set, Barker recently played two sets at the Orting Pumpkin festival with The Jerry Miller Band, and he will pick up sessions at area coffee houses and other music places.
Barker admits he is an “old soul” in a young body, and he feels a sense of understanding behind the music he plays. He’d love put together a band of teens, but most don’t know the genre or style.
Barker isn’t complaining, though: Getting to learn and play with the masters of the craft and having them take him under their wings and encourage him is enough inspiration for now.