Dave Carty
Dave Carty
VANTAGE  |  January/February 1998
4 Part Harmony

With a song in their hearts, not to mention perfect pitch, barbershop quartets haven't missed a beat.

"We’ve been preempted," baritone Charlie McGuire says.  "Can you imagine that?"

It’s true. McGuire is a 23-year-member of the Chord Rustlers, a barbershop chorus that’s been singing in the same Harmony Hall room at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman, Montana, for years.  Glumly, McGuire looks at the men around him. There are 15 or so, most in their 50’s and 60’s.  A couple of kids.  Their accustomed meeting room has been overrun this day by teenage tap dancers.

Following a quick powwow, everyone decides to move to a room down the hall.  After fumbling for the lights, the men set chairs in a circle around their musical director, Jim Price.  He toots on his pitch pipe, the men rise, and Price closes his eyes.  First silence.  Then a crescendo of voices fills the room, spilling out of the open windows on this jot July evening and washing across the sidewalk below.  Without a break, the group segues into My Wild Irish Rose, then another song and another.  Price leaps about the room, coaxing more sound from the group’s already seamless harmony.

The Chord Rustlers have a big gig coming up. The annual Sweet Pea Festival, which draws people from all over the state, is opening over the weekend in Bozeman, and the Rustlers will be manning a booth selling tater pigs – a sausage on a baked potato.  But mostly they’ll be singing.  Singing, after all, is what brought them together in the first place.

The tall, silver-haired McGuire, a retired cereal chemist, has been singing for most of his life.  But it is barbershop that he credits with developing his musical aptitudes, up to and including his stint as the Chord Rustler’s previous musical director.  Like most barbershoppers, he also sings in a quartet – a group called the Doodle Dandies.  "I enjoy making a chord with three other guys that is in tune and sounds good," he says.  "There’s something about harmony which is good for the soul."

It’s a sentiment that goes way back.  Barbershop quartets have been around at least since the Civil War.  They hit their stride in the early part of this century, when major sheet-music publishers from Tin Pan Alley hired quartets to sing and promote their music.  Singing around the parlor piano was a common evening entertainment in those days and might have remained so indefinitely.

But the advent of radio almost killed the pastime.  Who wanted to sing when one could listen to better singers all night for free?  Fortunately, a couple of farsighted attorneys met in 1938 and decided that barbershop was just too much fun to let wither on the vine.  And so the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSA) came in to being.  There’s no acronym that fits the organization – you’re stuck pronouncing the whole thing.

Today, nationwide there are some 35,000 barbershoppers, including the Sweet Adelines, a barbershop society for women.  There’s a society magazine, The Harmonizer, several newsletters, and regional, district and national competitions.  Barbershop conventions draw huge crowds, and the winners of the yearly national competition are instantly in demand for performances and CD sales.

Few make it to the very top, of course, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from performing.  Bass singer Kerm Taylor, 55, has been singing for 37 years, mostly in barbershop.  A few years ago, his quartet – Tuesday Night Alibi – was asked to sing at a San Diego State University Aztecs baseball game and, before they knew it, they were singing for Padres games, a Los Angeles Lakers game, and finally, at the Holiday Bowl.  The crowd of 60,000 at the Holiday Bowl took Taylor’s breath away.

"I’ve been doing this quarteting for so long that a lot of audiences don’t get to me," he says. "But that one did. The chills ran up and down my back, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. When we walked back up to take our seats, we got a standing ovation."

Taylor and crew rehearse once a week, more when they’re gearing up for a show. Some of the shows pay, some don’t, but it isn’t the money that keeps Taylor and others barbershopping.  "The performing, that the pay we get," he says. "It’s a really clean hobby. The guys in barbershopping are always out to help everybody. You go to a convention, and you end up singing with guys you’ve never heard before and having a wonderful time."

Men haven’t got a corner on fun. The Sweet Adelines includes thousands of women across the country. Peggy Acomb, 50, is one of them.  Acomb’s singing goes back to her mother, aunt and uncle, all of whom were barbershop singers.   Currently, Acomb sings baritone in a Salt Lake City quartet called Dazzle.  Like all groups, her quartet’s parts consist of lead, tenor, bass and baritone singers, sung an octave higher than the men.  Although in the past she’s done other types of singing, today she concentrates exclusively on barbershopping.  Her single mindedness paid off: Dazzle won the region-eight competition for quartets in May, 1997. Acomb, a judge in the Salt Lake City court system, skis and hikes when she’s not singing, but it is clearly four-part harmony that has captured her heart.  "Barbershop structure is unique," she says. "The chords are constructed so as to result in overtones, fifths or thirds or even octaves above what you’re actually singing, so that when people are using correct vocal production, and the chords are properly arranged in the barbershop style, there are other notes that are audible.  It’s really a physical experience.  It’s a wonderful emotional release, and for people who love music, the audible overtones are just really exciting. You get hooked on it."

Meanwhile, back at the Sweet Pea Festival, the Chord Rustlers are serving up barbershop with tater pigs on the side.  As the group breaks into song, a woman walking by pauses to listen.  "Listen to them!" she says to her friend. "Listen to them sing!"

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