Steve Barker has sung authentic country and western music at Sundown Cookouts at Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass since 1996, but his most cherished moment came a few years ago when a 10-year-old made a request.
“This kid is holding his mom’s hand and his mom says, 'He has a question to ask you,’” Barker recalls. “I said 'Oh, well what is it?’ and he says, 'I know you’re not gonna be able to do it, but do you know any (’50s country artist) Johnny Horton songs?’
“I just kind of told him, 'I think we’ll be able to do one or two for you," Barker laughs. “Of course, I know the whole Johnny Horton catalog, so we got up there on the next set and I kicked off 'Honky Tonk Man,’ 'Battle of New Orleans,’ 'North to Alaska,’ and he’s just so excited, and after the set I asked him 'How do you know Johnny Horton?’ and he said 'I listen to my grandfather’s records.’”
“I told him, 'God bless your grandfather,’” Barker laughs.
Barker’s Sundown Cookouts are full of Old West charm, a wagon ride, grilled steak and chicken, and the band’s classic country songbook.
You won’t hear contemporary country — Barker is a country purist, singing the classic, high lonesome country songs of Gene Autry, Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash.
“When people ask me to sing Toby Keith,” Barker says with a laugh, “I tell them that I made a deal with Toby — I won’t sing his songs if he doesn’t sing mine.”
The Power of Elvis
Barker grew up in Mill Valley, Calif., in the 1960s, when Bay Area bands were such acid rock stalwarts as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. But a chance sighting of the film “Jailhouse Rock” on TV set Barker’s musical career in motion.
“I can remember the moment — I was 7 years old and I was at my grandmother’s house,” Barker says. “I was flipping the channels and there’s 'Jailhouse Rock,’ and I saw that and I said, 'Mom, have you ever heard of this guy named Elvis? Can I have one of his records?’
“I’ve met three U.S. presidents, and security for Elvis was tighter,” laughs Barker, a dedicated collector of Elvis memorabilia who has an “Elvis Room” in his house. “But I’ve never stood next to a more impressive human being — it’s indescribable, and there is nobody, there will never be anybody, like that ever again.”
A self-described musical outcast in high school, Barker drifted down to Los Angeles to try his hand as an actor and fell in with such like-minded retro-country singers as Dwight Yoakam, Dale Watson and singer/actor John Corbett (before he landed an acting gig on TV’s “Northern Exposure”) at legendary North Hollywood country haunt the Palomino Club.
Barker then moved to Nashville, where the singer’s classic country style clashed with the pop-driven sounds Nashville was recruiting in the early ’90s.
“I had Martha Sharp, the head of Warner Brothers in Nashville, tell me, 'Steve, you’re probably the best singer I’ve heard come into this town since I’ve been here,’” Barker says. “But she said, 'I don’t think we can market you.’”
Barker moved to the Valley in 1996 when his wife was transferred to Scottsdale, and after working at Rawhide as the train conductor, he was hired to sing in the saloon and, finally, took over hosting the weekly Sundown Cookouts.
The singer and his crack backing band are rarely stumped when someone yells out a request, and when asked how many songs he knows off the top of his head, Barker laughs.
“I actually put a book together one time on the computer, and I just started with the artist and just writing all the George Jones songs I knew, all the Elvis I knew,” Barker says. “It came out to be 800 or so songs, and during the course of several months we’ll hit every one of those songs (at the Sundown Cookouts).”
With his classic, deep baritone, Barker could easily be making independent recordings of his own material (his CDs of country classics can be ordered from his Web site, 4stevebarker.com), but his gig at Rawhide gives the singer all the satisfaction he needs.
“One of the most gratifying things to me is to be up there on the stage, look down at the audience and they are completely absorbed in their food, and I go 'In 1814 I took a little trip’ (by Johnny Horton) and they turn around, like "I haven’t heard that song in years," Barker says. “I love that reaction, because anywhere they go, any club in town, they are not going to hear that.
“I have people from all over the world tell me that they came to Arizona and they saw the Grand Canyon, they saw old Tucson,” Barker says, “and they tell me that they had the most fun at the Sundown Cookout.”
Sundown Cookouts with the Steve Barker Band
When: 6 p.m. Saturdays through June
Where: Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass, 5700 W. North Loop Road, Gila River Indian Community
Cost: Adults, $45; children 4-11, $19
Reservations: (480) 502-5600