If there is beauty in simplicity, then few things are as beautiful to hear as the simple four-part harmonies of barbershop singing, a plain truth for the 73 members of Asheville’s Land of the Sky Chorus, the all-male group that has been harmonizing for Western North Carolina audiences since 1948.
The chorus performs both en masse, typically with up to 45 voices, and in quartets formed from within the membership, particularly popular this month with the organization’s annual Singing Valentines. “We may need six quartets or so, to deliver the valentines over a day or two,” explains Bob Burns, who joined the chorus a decade ago and now serves as its president. The chorus constitutes the Asheville chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, which boasts 850 chapters in the United States and Canada and over 25,000 members.
This distinctly American form of a cappella singing stems from the late 19th century and, yes, probably from barbershops, where men would gather for socializing along with their haircuts. The Barbershop Harmony Society traces its own roots to 1938 and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a tax lawyer and amateur singer named Owen Clifton Cash organized what he called “a songfest” on the roof garden of his downtown club. “In this age of dictators and government control of everything,” Cash wrote in a letter to like-minded singing enthusiasts, “about the only privilege guaranteed by the Bill of Rights not in some way supervised or directed is the art of Barber Shop Quartet singing.” Thus was born the Society For The Preservation And Encouragement Of Barber Shop Quartet Singing In America (in another effort at simplicity, rebranded itself several years ago as the Barbershop Harmony Society).
In a quartet setting, Bob Burns sings lead, or the main melody, around which the tenor sings a third of an octave above the lead, the bass sings an octave below and the baritone, considered the most difficult of the four components, fills in the chords between the bass and the lead. Especially prized is what barbershoppers call the “ringing chord,” a harmonic phenomenon in which all four parts blend into a dominant seventh chord that seems like a fifth voice. It’s such a trademark of the style that the BHS thinks the performance of any barbershop song should hit the ringing tone at least 35 percent of the time.
The Land of the Sky Chorus has undergone a kind of renaissance over the last decade, mainly due to the efforts of the chorus’ late Music Director, Chuck Greene, who passed away last summer. “He remade this chapter and chorus, and many others across the barbershop world,” Bob says of Chuck’s seven years with the chorus. “We sorely miss him.”
The chorus’ trademark “harmony and hilarity,” as Bob terms it, is evident in the scripted annual show it presents in Asheville, Waynesville and Hendersonville. “These shows have a theme,” Bob says, “and include six or eight new songs that we learn. The script is written by a team that relates the songs to a story line and characters. Besides the annual show, the chorus performs a standard repertoire at paid events in a concert-style setting, or will arrange smaller groups for private parties. “Our most memorable recent performance has to be doing the National Anthem at the 2012 SoCon Basketball Finals last spring, in front of 8,500 at the U.S Cellular Center,” Bob notes. The group’s performance was so enthusiastically received that they’ll be performing again next month at this year’s Finals.
The chorus’ age range stretches from 22 to 83, although boys as young as ten have performed with the group, a feature of the chorus’ educational outreach. “Boys have come to us through their member fathers, or by parents who want their boys to be in an organization that teaches good vocal skills,” Bob says. Further exposure comes from the chorus’ concert schedule using high school venues, at which vocal groups from each school are invited to perform with the chorus. “We donate a portion of the ticket revenues from these events to each school’s music department,” Bob explains, adding that smaller quartets from the chorus visit music classes at schools throughout the region. The chorus also funds two philanthropic endeavors, one that supports music education in area schools and another, called the Angel Fund that helps members with dues, convention registration fees and performance costumes. “We will not lose a member because they can’t afford the hobby,” Bob says.
Whatever the audience, barbershop singing never fails to conjure up visions of the silvery moons, straw-hatted strollers and spooning couples of a nostalgic past. “What could be sweeter than ten or twelve perfectly synchronized male voices singing ‘Dear Old Girl’?” Owen Cash asked back in 1938. For 65 years, the Land of the Sky Chorus has been answering that question, purely and simply.