Reporter: It’s a story about the son of a sharecropper who grows up to play in a zydeco band.
Editor: Same old tale, what else you got?
Reporter: How about the guy gets a football scholarship, earns a degree in marine biology, has a stint playing pro football, becomes a U.S. Park Ranger, learns to play accordion and ends up as the poster boy for French Quarter Fest 2012.
Editor: Now you have my attention. What’s his name?
Reporter: Bruce Barnes, better known as Sunpie.
That was the conversation running through my mind as we sat in the performance studio on Saturday where we ended up during our tour of the U.S. Mint. We had seen the interview with a guy in a dark green National Park Service uniform being broadcast on screens in the hallway and followed the sound to the third floor.
On stage, a man was talking about his father (“Why you want to go play in a juke joint and get killed?”), his uncle who was a mule skinner along the Mississippi River and his Aunt Fannie who dipped snuff and like to give the kids a big sloppy kiss before expectorating.
Between stories, he played some of the seven instruments he has mastered, including piano and acccordion, and recreated the story of his hound dog hunting all kinds of game with his harmonica. Over the course of an hour, he regaled about fifty of us festival goers with stories and music that revealed a southern tale worthy of Faulkner.
One of ten kids (his father was 55 when he was born), he grew up on a truck farm in Arkansas and what free time they had they spent hunting and fishing. He ran track in school but switched to football in hopes of getting a college scholarship ( “Basically I was just trying to figure out how not to pick so many peas.”) Success on the gridiron at Henderson State led to a shot as linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and he jumped to the USFL when Donald Trump dangled the big bucks. After the league folded, he returned to his first love: the oceans and their habitats. As an NPS Ranger, he ended up back in New Orleans, still playing music with friends and bandmates from college days.
In 1989, he went into serious debt ($1250) to buy his first accordion. The next day, a friend told him about open auditions for a TV Commercial and said, “Bring your accordion.” One problem: Bruce didn’t know how to play an accordion. “I stayed up all night with that thing, until at last I could play one little song.” As luck would have it, the casting director asked him to play, he did, and beat out hundreds of others to star in a Sprite commercial. The fee for that paid off the accordion.
Several months later, frustrated with his progress, he went to see a music teacher in hopes of lessons. The teacher’s response was, “You are playing that upside down and backwards!” Bruce, who is left handed, had been able to pull it off; but he turned things around (unlike Rockin Doopsie who always played it in reverse, according to Bruce).
Sunpie got his nickname from Aunt Fannie because he used to follow his Uncle (the original Sunpie, a Crow Indian name) around as a little tyke. He became Little Sunpie.
Nothing little about Sunpie now, who stands about six feet four inches tall. Nothing small about his musical sound either as the group revved up the dancers at the Cajun Zydeco stage on Sunday afternoon. He and The Louisiana Sunspots (guitar, bass, two rubboard players who double on trumpets, drums and saxophone) can cover the musical waterfront: Domini, Money Bread, Choo Choo The Boogie, Luanne, Going Back to Big Mamou and more. They kept the dance floor full and brought the rest of us to our feet with some hot jams that went from blues to jazz to rockabilly. Sunpie's show was every bit as good as his back story.