Barbershop quartets staging comeback across U.S.

Friday, April 11, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

JOPLIN — Singers call it the "angel's voice."

The phenomenon occurs when a group of singers reach an identical chord, voices blended together as one, the harmonics justly tuned and balanced, creating a new frequency of sound that can "literally raise up the hair on the arm," said Don Snow.

Snow, president of the Tristatesmen Barbershop Chorus, has heard this angel's voice a thousand times before. During a recent practice session inside the First Baptist Church of Webb City, members of this all-male chorus created, right on the spot, an example of this expanded sound. Snow balanced the bass singers, the leads, baritones and the tenors into a single, beautiful tone over the course of less than 30 seconds.

"Hear it?" a beaming Snow asked. "Only human voices can create that."

At that moment, the Tristatesmen singers demonstrated exactly why barbershop chorus groups and the smaller, more intimate quartets are staging a comeback in popularity among the American public.

An example occurred in February, when Jimmy Fallon and his a cappella close-harmony group, "Ragtime Gals," sang the R. Kelly hit, "Ignition (Remix)," on The Tonight Show. Popular reality shows based on the singing talents of individuals, such as "American Idol" and "The Voice" have boosted interest as well.

"Membership is actually up worldwide," said Jeremy Albright, the group's director. "We went through a long period there where football rules and singers drool. You know, it's that old high school boy mentality. You're not manly if you sing. But we've really changed that, I believe."

Growing membership

Albright, who serves as Jasper's Police Chief, has helmed the group for eight years.

"When I took over, there were nine guys at my first rehearsal, and the average age in the low 70s. This year, they have between 25 to 30 active members with the average age at the low 50s. Their youngest singer is 15, their oldest is 93."

Albright, who has a music history degree from Pittsburg State University, began singing at the age of 15; he joined the barbershop choir his grandfather, Donald, was participating in at the time.

"I grew up with that music," he said. "In the group, there was a 65-year gap between me and the next guy in the group (chuckling). So I grew up in an environment where hanging with old guys was easy for me."

Chartered in 1976, the chorus is composed of 40 men and boys hailing from Joplin, Webb City, Carthage, Lamar, Lockwood, Neosho, Columbus, Kan., Baxter Springs, Kan., and Bella Vista, Ark.

Popular songs include "God Bless America," ''I'm Feelin' Fine," ''It is Well with My Soul," "My Wild Irish Rose" and "Just a Cottage Small."

The chorus also features two separate quartets: F.O.G. (Four Old Guys) and Random Play. Albright and Rose are members of the latter. Random Play will perform during Third Thursday events on April 17.

"We were together for six weeks, and we took ninth out of 35 quartets at district competitions," Albright said of Random Play. "We're very excited about what we have going on. It's an incredible thrill to go out and perform before 2,000 people."

Barbershop chorus groups and quartets aren't just unique because they perform without a single musical instrument.

"One of the special things about barbershop quartet is music people can relate to," Albright said. "We tell stories. Whether it's a story about your lost love or a good old time down in Dixie, these are the kinds of stories we tell to connect with our audiences."

Connecting with its audience is another area that sets a quartet apart from a band or solo act on stage.

"We sing directly to our audience," Albright said. "We make eye contact. We memorize our songs so we can get past (the song notes). We're able to sing to our audience and give them something to appreciate. For them to feel appreciated is a real thrill for us.

"We're really starting to become accepted in the vocal music world as a real legitimate art form."

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