Just about anywhere a barbershopper goes, he can find kindred souls. An instant bond forms among singers who perform pieces from the foundational song collection adopted by the Barbershop Harmony Society called Barberpole Cats. Easy harmonies and relatable lyrics are one of the reasons songs such as "Light a Rose," "I Love You Truly" and "Heart of My Hearts" have been around as long as barbershop groups have opened their mouths to sing.
A quartet or entire chorus of men's voices resounding clearly and crisply recalls memories of days past. But if youth outreach efforts have any success, the popularity of barbershop will not only continue to rise but also appeal to a whole new generation of fans. For the first time in half a decade, one of Boise's own a cappella groups, The Boise Chordsmen, are playing host to the 2008 Evergreen District Convention and Competition in a big, boisterous event titled "Harmony by the River." And this weekend, hundreds of those kindred souls will converge on Boise to compete for a shot at the international competition.
Twenty-eight quartets and 16 choruses from all over the Northwest, Canada and Alaska take the stage for judges in the final round of national competition. Of all the singers who hope to advance, only two or three from each category—which includes a quartet category, a senior's quartet (with an average age of 60—the members have 240 years of combined experience) and a chorus competition—will get that opportunity based on how they finish in this competition. This is the type of event that organizer and member of The Boise Chordsmen Jim Kling says brings an air of excitement barbershoppers don't get anywhere else.
"This competition is pivotal, so I can tell you, all the energy and everything comes to focus here, and there is a lot on the line," said Kling. The group anticipates high attendance numbers, even though barbershop is not a type of music many people in Boise may be familiar with.
"We knew that once they come, they're going to love it," said Kling. "The amenities of downtown, the fact that we have the beautiful Boise River running right through the center of our city, and the Morrison Center right on the edge of the river prompted the name 'Harmony by the River.'"
The Boise Chordsmen, a group clad in white tuxedos with pink and red ties, perform all over the Treasure Valley and spend all of Valentine's Day delivering sweet songs. Kling says the men who join barbershop groups are all ordinary guys, many of whom don't have formal music education. What they do have is a gift for singing, and Kling said that's all you need. Even with 77,000 active barbershoppers worldwide, the classic songs are always in English.
"You don't have to read music to sing barbershop, but you do have to be able to memorize music because everything we sing is by heart," he said
For all the seriousness of the competition—many of the judges have doctorates in music—the draw for most barbershoppers is a way to escape from their daily stresses. Kling, who came from a musical family, works for the Boise Police Department. Con Hobson co-owns Dale's Service, a supply house for all types of industrial and mechanical items. Hobson has been a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society for 25 years and, in addition to The Boise Chordsmen, Hobson also sings with Idaho Gold and River City Sounds.
"First off, I love to sing, secondly it's a great association with good people with like interests from all types of backgrounds," Hobson said. "It's a great release for me, and every chance I get to sing in a quartet, life is better."
Hobson is also organizing the upcoming Treasure Valley Youth Barbershop Festival.
"Kids love barbershop because it's appealing to their ears," Hobson said. "Barbershop lets the kids get emotionally, vocally and physically involved with the music."
Bringing up a younger crop of barbershop singers is a focus of many choruses. Barbershop quartets and choruses are now singing Beethoven and Bach, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and more that wouldn't have been barbershopped in the past. Some of the more jazzy and syncopated tunes lend well to choreography, a relatively new thing in barbershop.
Josh Royce, 24, is the kind of younger singer barbershop groups are trying to attract. Royce was a cheerleader for the Boise State football team and got started with a barbershop group while he was singing with the now-defunct Boise State Men's Choir. Now Royce is enrolled in graduate school at University of Idaho in Boise studying mechanical engineering. The bass has been singing with a youth barbershop, BoiseBlend, since August of last year.
"I'm definitely a younger barbershopper compared to other guys," said Royce.
He also sings with The Boise Chordsmen and, according to Kling, the buff, happy-go-lucky guy has come a long way.
"Josh has spurred interest in other kids," said Kling. "He has come out of his shell learning how to project his voice."
According to Royce, a good rehearsal occurs when all the harmonies are there and the volume relationships are in tune. The chords are clear, and that is when a literal wall of sound is produced.
"It's pretty rad. I was buzzing with my lead really well," said Royce. "When you sing together and get the overtones, it's like two voices singing as one, and it fills you up with energy."
After a good rehearsal night, many a barbershopper comes out so pumped up that he needs an outlet to help simmer down. That outlet is referred to as an "afterglow." After a particularly well-tuned practice, the group gathers at a local pizzeria, orders a couple of beers and proceeds to decompress by singing some of their favorite Barberpole Cat songs. A person blows a pitch, says the name of the song and blows the pitch again. This is where new songs and old traditions intermingle to keep the spirit of barbershop alive.
And this weekend, all the signature styles, harmonies and camaraderie of barbershop are on display in front of a live audience. Kling said the hometown quartets and choruses are thrilled to be hosting the largest vocal competition ever in Idaho.
"The songs that we sing are the greatest songs that were ever written about America, and when you stick around barbershop for very long, you learn a lot about the country and how we treat each other, how we love each other and how a man romances a woman," said Kling. "All those value systems are intertwined into our music, and it's culture because we are preserving not only the harmonies of barbershop but we are preserving the value system of America."
Oct. 24-25, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, two-day pass: $56.50; Oct. 25 only: $16.50. Quartet semi-final, Friday, Oct. 24, 6-10 p.m.; Oct. 25, chorus contest, 8 a.m.-11:30 a.m.; quartet finals, 3-4:45 p.m.; finale 8-10:30 p.m.