Slice of Sunpie

Many paths, one passion for zydeco's 'Sunpie' Barnes

King of Rock and Roll. King of Pop. And now, King of Zydeco?

Recently, some have suggested crowning Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes the new king of zydeco music. Now, that would certainly be a shame, because it would restrict him to playing only one type of music—when he’s so good at many more. “His music reflects the whole New Orleans ‘gumbo’ idea of all the cultures colliding,” says Sebastopol Cajun-Zydeco Festival chairman Scott Hensey. Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots headline the 18th annual festival this weekend.

Sunpie’s versatility includes zydeco, blues, Creole, Caribbean, rock, gospel, jazz and more. “I call it Afro-Louisiana music,” he says over the phone. He tells stories, as music is intended to do, and “one of the best ways history is told is through the music of people,” he says. “They’re going to tell their history honestly through music.”

Barnes, a renaissance man whose life experiences infuse his New Orleans music, plays accordion, harmonica and a handful of other instruments with the group he’s been with since the early ’90s. But his full-time job is that of a park ranger at New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. In that capacity, he’s made five CDs, including one for children with a park ranger in Colorado, and a book, due in November, designed to teach kids about New Orleans jazz. He’s a bona fide scientist, too, studying fish in parks across the country.

Barnes also works with kids as the chief of the Mardi Gras group the North Side Skull and Bone Gang. The tradition, which dates back some 200 years, involves dressing up in handmade skeleton costumes (with masks) and waking the spirits at the crack of dawn on Fat Tuesday. “We come out there and bring all those spirits back to life,” says Barnes. Three Skull and Bone songs in Creole figure on the new Louisiana Sunspots album, Island Man. “I like to keep that aspect of the real culture and music alive,” says Barnes.

With his outsized personality, Sunpie appears regularly in films and documentaries, not to mention several appearances in the HBO series Treme. His music decorates the soundtracks to about a dozen films, too. In addition, Barnes is a former All-American college football player, and also did a stint in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“Also,” “too,” “in addition”—these words and phrases are sprinkled throughout any article about Barnes like sugar on beignets. With so many passions, how does he choose what to focus on? The short answer is, he doesn’t.

As the reluctant King of Zydeco says: “I have a passion for life. Period.”