NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ When you think of a barbershop quartet, what image springs to mind?
You might flash back to the Buffalo Bills’ show-stealing turn in the 1962 film “The Music Man.” Or perhaps you grew up watching the episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer starts a quartet with Apu, Barney and Principal Skinner. And if you’re too young to remember any of that, you’ve probably at least seen Jimmy Fallon singing old-timey versions of modern pop songs with his own barbershop quartet, The Ragtime Gals. No matter who you are, you likely have a reference point for this century-old tradition of close-harmony singing.
If you’re around downtown Nashville this week, you’ll probably end up with a new lasting impression of barbershop music.
Starting Sunday, more than 6,000 singers from around the country and the globe descended on Nashville for The Barbershop Harmony Society 2016 International Convention. Major venues such as Bridgestone Arena and the Schermerhorn will be the site of intense group competitions. They’ll hold free singing lessons for anyone who visits them at the Music City Center on Friday, and they’ll cap off the day with a free public concert at Bridgestone with The Fairfield Four and Crossroads.
Yes, barbershop is coming to Nashville in a big way this week _ but believe it or not, it’s been here, permanently, for the past decade.
Nashville is the little-known home of the Barbershop Harmony Society, which moved its headquarters here from Kenosha, Wis., in 2007. Founded in 1938, the organization boasts 23,000 members, all on a mission to spread “the joy of four-part a cappella singing.”
“I think there was a genuine interest and desire to be part of a music environment,” says Marty Monson, the society’s CEO. He’s had the job since 2012 but has been a society member for nearly 30 years. “The appeal to Nashville was that `Music City’ piece of it.”
Still, it took a while for the Society to truly integrate itself in the local music community. The organization’s downtown building _ with silvery barber poles in front and a giant Rockwell print of barbershop singers on the side _ is primarily an administrative hub, servicing those 23,000 members from around the country.
Monson says that’s started to change in the past few years. In 2014 the Society moved its annual “Harmony U” music camp to Belmont University. Last year, the groups formed at that camp took over the streets of Nashville for a day of free concerts, bringing barbershop harmony to the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway and beyond.
“We feel it’s really important to be more engaged, and when we have, the community has really embraced us.”
Another key local angle is coming into play at this year’s convention, as the Society is aiming to shed light on the roots of barbershop music, which stems significantly from African-American vocal traditions. They’re bringing in Nashville’s Fairfield Four, a Grammy-winning gospel institution founded in 1935.
“When I learned that Fairfield Four was headquartered here in Nashville, three years ago, I said, `We’ve got to do a collaboration.’ We don’t have any of this documented, or aligned or telling the story about how the different sounds are so similar. There’s a lot more similarities than there are differences.”
Barbershop harmony was a part of Nashville long before the Society came to town, too. The Music City Chorus has been a local fixture since 1948, and they rehearse every Tuesday night. Twenty-four-year member Bob Davenport says members’ ages range from 16 to 86, and their ranks include “ministers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, contractors, you name it.”
“Anyone who loves to sing four-part harmony is certainly welcome.”
In 2015 the members could add another title to their names: bronze medalists. At last year’s convention in Pittsburgh, the group came in fifth in the chorus competition, their highest placement to date.
They’re hoping to do even better this year _ perhaps a home-field advantage will come into play? If not there are other perks to having an international convention in your backyard.
“We’re looking forward to seeing 6,000 of our barbershop friends from all over the world,” Davenport says.
If you go:
The society is presenting a free public concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on July 9. Nashville gospel institution The Fairfield Four and the award-winning quartet Crossroads will share the stage, and the two groups are slated to “share musical history, trade riffs and demonstrate the heritage of vocal close harmony that traveled different paths to create the gospel quartet style and the barbershop quartet style.”
You can secure free tickets to the concert by visiting www.barbershop.org/nashville/a-better-world-singing . It’s part of a full day of free public performances and interactive events dubbed “A Better World Singing Day.” Other events on July 9 include free concerts at Walk of Fame Park and Harmony University (with free singing classes) at Music City Center.
See a full schedule of events at www.barbershop.org/nashville .
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com