BY GAYLE GRESHAM
His rich baritone voice fills the room and his fingers fly over the strings of his guitar as Barry Ward sings the words of Farm Family, one of the songs from his new Christmas CD:
Well, me and my two sisters snuck up one early Christmas morning,
Just to see what was there beneath the tree,
There set three brand-new bikes
Just as shiny as they could be
Lord, I thank you for my family
The lyrics reflect the foundation of this western singer and musician — family, faith and farm. In fact, the chorus ends with the line “But the best part of a farm is a family,” a tribute to the bonds of family and farm that were part of Barry’s life as he grew up on a farm and, later, as he farmed the land himself.
Barry’s Christmas memories revolve around the Kansas farm where he was raised and where he raised his own children. Both sets of his grandparents lived
“We would go to Grandma’s house for a big dinner with all of the family,” Barry recalls. “There was always homemade ice cream — you have to remember this was in southern Kansas where it’s often 75- or 80-degree weather on Christmas day. We played dominos and cards in the afternoon. It was a different time, a slower paced lifestyle.
“When our children were older, we’d go pheasant hunting after Christmas dinner. Our farm had some of the best pheasant hunting in the country,” he continues. “Yes, those were good times.”
Today, Barry and his wife, Victoria, live on a Colorado ranch near Elbert, his home base as he travels throughout the state and the West sharing his songs. Barry was recently nominated in three categories by the Western Music Association in 2011: Original Song (“Ridin’ Along the Cimarron”); Outstanding Performer – Male; and Outstanding Songwriter. He also received two nominations from the Academy of Western Music: Western Music Male and Western Music Song, also for “Ridin’ Along the Cimarron.”
Awards and nominations are not his goal. “It is always an honor to be recognized,” he says. “However, it isn’t about me, it’s about the songs. To me, a nomination means someone is connecting with the message in the song.”
And people have connected with his music as he has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City and in remote African villages in Camaroon. No matter where he performs, his purpose is always to share the music inside of him and the message of his roots.
So, he didn’t start playing the guitar until he was 35 years old and was a farmer working the family land near Copeland, Kansas. He drove 40 miles once a week to Dodge City to take instruction from Ron Rolland, a man who not only taught him the mechanics of guitar playing, but also instilled a passion for the guitar and its voice. Barry learned to play jazz and blues along with basic rhythm guitar, snippets of which can be heard in his music today.
Somebody talked Barry into singing a special song at church one Sunday a few years later. He sang and was asked to sing again. Soon people from other churches began asking him to sing.
That hadn’t been the plan as Barry didn’t set out to be a western musician. “I never had a single intention of doing what I am doing now,” he says with a chuckle.
Barry continued to farm with his father, spending 10 to 12 hours a day working irrigation or driving a tractor. For Barry, the word “family” was synonymous with “farm.”
Farming in a family operation has its own set of difficulties. One afternoon in his early years of farming with his father, Barry and his dad had an argument over something about the farm. The next day Barry’s dad came to him with tears in his eyes and said, “Go, use your college degree and teach and coach. This is no life for you.”
But Barry couldn’t leave the farm; his roots ran too deep. Barry planned to farm until his children took over the farm, expecting his sons to have the same sense of place and ties to the farm as he did.
Barry’s reputation as a quality western singer and performer spread beyond Kansas. The more performances he lined up, the harder it became to keep up with his farming. His children grew up, went to college and started their own lives. But Barry still believed one day at least one of his sons would return to the farm to carry on the family tradition.
Four years of drought made farming even more difficult, and then Barry’s father passed away. Victoria received a job offer at Western Jubilee Recording Company in Colorado Springs, and she moved to Colorado while Barry stayed in Kansas to take care of the farm.
Barry struggled with grief and depression the next two years, dealing with the death of his father, commuting to Colorado to spend time with Victoria and trying desperately to hold onto the family farm to leave a legacy for his children. Finally, Barry’s sons sat down with him one day and straight out told him they didn’t want to farm and they didn’t want him to hold onto the farm for them. Barry realized it was time to sell the farm and pursue his music career.
Living a New Dream
“Here I am starting my career and performing with a lot of people who are in the twilight years of their careers,” Barry says with a shake of his head. “There is a season for everything as it says in Ecclesiastes in the Bible and this is our season to do what God’s set out for us to do.
“Selling the farm was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Barry says. “Especially since it was in my family for four generations. But everything changes, nothing stays the same.”
For Barry, selling the farm felt like he was selling his identity. He’d always been a farmer and that’s who he was.
Barry pauses a moment and says, “A friend told me, ‘That’s who you will always be, no matter where you are or what you are doing.’ And, you know, he’s right. Farming is what I have lived and it is who I am.”
Without the time constraints of farming, Barry devotes his time to writing songs and practicing his songs. He plays his guitar at least three hours a day when he can, trying to get in at least an hour a day of practice when days are busy. The guitar is more than a rhythm instrument to Barry.
“I play the guitar to enhance the song, using its voice to bring out the meaning of the song,” he says. “I play what I hear. It is always about the songs, not about me. When it becomes about me, it will be over.”
Barry performs his music in a variety of venues. Along with singing at western storytelling and music festivals, he shares his music and message at churches, events and acoustic societies. “Colorado has an amazing number of acoustic societies like the Cañon Rose Acoustic Society in Cañon City and the Black Rose Acoustic Society in Black Forest,” he says.
In June of 2010, Barry traveled to a mountainous region in Camaroon, West Africa to give eight concerts at five different locations. He was the first western cowboy singer the people had ever seen or heard. Barry wore his cowboy hat constantly. The emblem of the American West fascinated the African people and started many conversations.
The words of Barry’s songs were projected on a screen while he sang. On the first night, after hearing the first verse and chorus of the first song, 600 Africans natives began singing his western songs along with him — a memory he will never forget. And this happened at every concert.
Even though they’d never experienced the American West, the people really understood what the songs were about. Barry’s descriptive songs of land and place were familiar to the African people as well as ties to faith and family. They especially liked it when Barry used the slide on his guitar, a sound they’d never heard before, and cheers and whoops erupted from the crowds.
“It’s hard for me to talk about my trip to Africa,” Barry says. “It was a life-changing event. There is a whole big, wonderful world out there. Something I never would have discovered if I’d stayed on the farm and not pursued my music career.”
With Christmas around the corner, Barry is pleased to have his “Christmas on the Ranch” CD available. Along with his original song Farm Family, traditional favorites such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and western favorites such as “Christmas on the Line” by Michael Martin Murphey, are also included on Barry’s CD.
And what would Christmas be without a treat? Barry is joined on the CD with harmonies by western favorites Liz Masterson and Vern Thomson and Joe Stephenson of Colorado Cowboys for Jesus. Joe’s fiddle and mandolin leads also grace the CD, the perfect complement to Barry’s rich baritone voice.
It is a voice that has taken him to New York City and around the world to Africa. But it is also a voice tied to the land and used to share with others the value of that land, of family and faith.
Ballads from the Heartland — Songs by Barry Ward