The life and times of Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes — zydeco superstar, naturalist, full-time park ranger, former NFL player 

One of the world's best zydeco musicians hails from Benton. How Sunpie Barnes followed his dreams to New Orleans.

When Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes arrived in New Orleans almost 20 years ago, he felt an uncanny recognition when he heard people speaking Creole French.

"I picked it up right away," Barnes said. "When I was a kid I used to have all these dreams in Creole. I didn't know what it was, I just knew it was some kind of different language. When I moved to Louisiana, I knew."

Barnes has always been attuned to dreams. He was born in Benton in 1963 under a prophet sign, according to his grandmother, a Louisiana-born "fix-it lady" who did traditional healings and read stars for people in their community. "She told me I would have dreams and visions, and she taught me how to interpret them," Barnes said. Laughing, he added, "and she told me not everyone would believe me, or understand."

Whatever the cause, it's hard to deny that Barnes has found his path. Nowadays the boy who used to dream in Creole in Benton sings in Creole in New Orleans as one of the most prominent musicians in zydeco, a traditional music form originating in southwest Louisiana. Barnes — a multi-instrumentalist who plays accordion, harmonica, rub board, piano, talking drum and more — fronts Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots. Though Sunpie is a popular mainstay on the zydeco circuit, Barnes' music isn't contained by a single genre — he mixes in Delta blues, gospel, boogie woogie, R&B, and West African and Caribbean influences. He calls it "Afro-Louisiana."

Barnes, in addition to being a musician and composer, is a naturalist, a full-time National Park ranger, a black-and-white portrait photographer, a television and film actor and a former professional football player with the Kansas City Chiefs.

"I'm not interested in being restricted," Barnes said. "I'm interested in life."

***

Bruce Barnes, 51, grew up in Benton's Gravel Hill community, the 10th of 11 children. His family traces their roots across southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. His parents were sharecroppers who worked various farms in southern Arkansas and the Delta before escaping from a plantation in the middle of the night to take work at an aluminum plant in Bauxite, working open-pit aluminum ore mines. They initially lived in tarpaper shacks along with Hispanic migrant workers in what was known as Mexico Camp, but later settled in Gravel Hill, along with others who had escaped sharecropping plantations. Barnes' parents often helped other sharecroppers escape, in what amounted to a post-bellum underground railroad.

"They created a whole community by stealing people off the plantation," Barnes said. "Gravel Hill was our little community. Pretty much the all-black section, south of the tracks, you know how it is in Arkansas."

Barnes spent a lot of time hunting and fishing, or just playing all day in the woods. "We used to always fantasize about being out in the world on some kind of adventure," Barnes said. As a kid, he would climb out the window at 1 or 2 in the morning and take walks in the woods for miles. "I'd just sit down and listen and see all the animals that were moving and coming through," he said. "I just felt like I needed to be out in the world. That was a driving force for me for whatever reason, to devise a plan to get out in the world."

Barnes' father, Willie Barnes Sr., was a blues harmonica player. "He was raised around people like Roosevelt Sykes and Bill Broonzy — they lived and worked in the same plantations he did," Barnes said. "That's what he was exposed to and that's what he loved to play."

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