Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 1, 2013

Lessons from the pros

Peru H. S. choir students learn from hit songwriter and award-winning artist

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Aaron Barker strummed on a guitar in Peru High School’s choir room Thursday and sang his famous Christmas cookies song.

“I sure do like those Christmas cookies, sugar,” he sang. “I sure do like those Christmas cookies, babe. The ones that look like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, bells and stars, I sure do like those Christmas cookies, babe.”

George Strait recorded that song on a Christmas CD in 1999 — about 25 years after Barker wrote it and tucked it away in a drawer, he told students.

His mom used to make Christmas cookies every year, and he would snatch them up and eat them before she even had time to ice them.

So right out of high school, Barker decided to write a funny, little song about it. He recorded the song on a cassette tape and stashed it away in a drawer.

He wasn’t sure whether it was even any good.

“This is stuff I wrote down when I was real young,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was relevant.”

Then the King of Country needed a new Christmas song to record. He asked Barker if he had any. Barker initially told him, “no.”

Then Barker’s wife reminded him that he had that cookies song sitting in a drawer.

So Strait recorded it. Then the Oakridge Boys recorded it. Now, the “Duck Dynasty” family wants to record it, too.

“That old Christmas cookie song sure did me good,” he told the students.

It was part of a lesson on songwriting.

Barker and his wife have been coming to Peru High School for 11 years. Each time they bring a different guest artist with them. This year it was Gary Chapman, a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter and his wife, Cassie.

The goal was to teach teens how to capture moments and turn them into a song.

Barker has done a lot of that.

The San Antonio, Texas, native was touring fulltime in a cover band when his first attempt at songwriting — “Baby Blue” — went to No. 1 after country music superstar George Strait recorded the song on his “If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’” album. Another song, “Love Without End, Amen,” was the result of a long father and son talk. Although Baker never intended to play the song outside his family, “Love Without End, Amen” became a country music classic, spending five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard for Strait. He also wrote Lonestar’s top single, “What About Now.”

He never knows when inspiration is going to hit.

Barker said he keeps a legal pad by his bed to write lyrics in the middle of the night, and he used to pull off the road when he was feeling inspired.

“I would stop and use a payphone to call my house and sing into the voice message recorder,” he said.

Chapman said he was over at Barker’s house one night. It was an old plantation that was used as a hospital during the Civil War.

Barker casually told his friend that one day he saw a woman he’d never met before walking through the house, wearing period clothing from the 1800s. This woman walked down the hall, across the dining room and into the kitchen before disappearing.

Chapman asked him if he’d been scared.

“He said it was strangely natural,” Chapman told the choir students. “She seemed to belong there.”

After hearing that, he picked up Barker’s old guitar and started playing a few notes. Then the pair started writing lyrics. Fifteen minutes later, they had written “The Widow of the South,” a song on Chapman’s newest album.

It was a haunting song about a ghost who was still waiting for her husband to return home from the Civil War more than 150 years after he left with the Confederate Army.

Peru Choir Director Jason Gornto said his students will talk about this experience all year. It’s a really unique opportunity for them learn from artists of such a high caliber, he said.

Barker comes as part of the Honeywell Center Education Outreach program. It’s funded by sponsors of the performing arts center in Wabash.

Gornto said Peru High School would never be able to afford this otherwise.

And Barker doesn’t speak to many schools.

“They don’t teach kids around the country,” Gornto said. “This is it. This is something special for this area.”

Barker’s wife, Theresa, said she and her husband started speaking to students in and around Wabash after performing at the Honeywell Center more than a decade ago. Someone there told her that these students needed inspiration. They needed to know there was more beyond the Wabash-area and more opportunities for them beyond farming, she said.

Aaron Barker delivered that same message to students Thursday.

“That’s why we’re here, so you have a friend in the music business,” he said. “Now, we’ll stay in touch all year. We’d love to help you in any way we can.”

The Barkers invited the teens to send them song lyrics for feedback and guidance.

Gornto said this saves his students 15 or 20 years of wondering how to break into songwriting. They now have someone who can help them along.

That’s a big deal, he said.

But the Barkers don’t mind.

“We have a blast doing it,” she said.

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com.