There’s nowhere these guys won’t sing.
Lawrence resident Shaun Whisler can tell you that chords carry well in a walk-in cooler. He’s a beer delivery man, and he’s caused many a bartender to wonder why Sinatra is re-arranging the Budweisers.
Caleb Fouse is a high school basketball coach, and he can tell you a little bit of a cappella classic rock puts an extra bounce in the steps of his players running full-court sprints.
Both Whisler and Fouse actually perform on a stage from time-to-time, too. They’re part of a musical group where singing had better be second nature. A short rehearsal will last at least four hours, but more common is the group getting together at someone’s home and singing for an entire weekend.
The BoomTown Quartet will be in concert at 2 p.m. June 30 at Central United Methodist Church, 1501 Massachusetts. Admission is free, but the group will accept donations to help pay for a trip to Toronto for the International Barbershop Quartet Contest.
Even when they're supposed to be taking a break from singing, they can’t help themselves.
“We have fun while we’re doing it,” Fouse says of the marathon practices. “We’ll take a break and go to the golf course, but we still sing a little bit while we’re playing.”
A singing foursome? No, this group isn’t a foursome. It is a quartet — an actual honest-to-goodness barbershop quartet called BoomTown Quartet.
But if you see them in those traditional red and white candy-striped dandy suits, those must just be their golfing clothes, because they try hard not to be that type of barbershop quartet.
“One of the things we try to do is break down the stereotypes of barbershop quartets,” Fouse said.
I don’t know about you, but the fact that there are still barbershop quartets that don’t reside at a nursing home busted a big one for me.
Barbershop singing — or barbershopping, to use the lingo — is not only alive and well, but its newest Cinderella story has a Lawrence connection.
Lawrence resident Whisler is BoomTown’s bass singer. Soon, he also will be a three-time competitor on the world’s largest stage for barbershop singing. BoomTown is one of 50 quartets that has qualified for the 75th Annual International Barbershop Quartet Contest. This year’s contest, hosted by the Barbershop Harmony Society, is the first week of July in Toronto.
BoomTown is the 43rd ranked quartet in the world, thus the Cinderella label, but that hasn’t deterred the group at all. After all, the quartet has been together for less than a year.
“If the slipper fits, so to speak, and we win this competition, it would be a dream come true,” Whisler said. “It would be my life’s No. 1 bucket list item crossed off.”
Even though Whisler is just 32, barbershop fame has been on his list for longer than you would think. He’s been in one quartet or another since his junior high music teacher in Olathe introduced him to the barbershop style in seventh grade. He’s competed two other times on the international stage with other quartets.
“But it has changed over the years,” said Whisler, a driver for Lawrence-based O’Malley Beverage and the music director for Central United Methodist Church. “When I first got into it, it was a lot of older guys, guys in their 40s, 50s and beyond. Now at last year’s international competition, all the winners were younger than me.”
The performers have changed, in part, because the songs have changed. No longer is the music confined to songs written in your great-grandpa’s heyday. Young music aficionados can take modern songs and rearrange the chords — a process called “shopping” — to make the tune fit the barbershop style. Last year’s international winning quartet used a Michael Jackson song. BoomTown has Sinatra, Beach Boys and Beatles tunes on its playlist.
“There is a huge youth movement going on right now,” said Zane Sutton, an Overland Park resident, BoomTown’s tenor and the group’s youngest member at 20. “We’re really kind of changing the rules.”
The newfangled invention of radio was supposed to be the death knell for barbershop quartets. The music style was popular in the early 1900s, but as radio grew, the sound and spectacle of the street-corner quartets began to fade.
In other words, barbershop singing was on its deathbed for quite awhile. It's not any longer. Let’s not kid ourselves: Barbershop singing is not going to take over the Top 40 charts, but it has more than a toehold in mainstream culture. NBC ran three seasons of the popular a cappella singing program The Sing Off, the hit sitcom The Office worked several barbershop quartet songs into is storyline, and there is even a barbershop quartet — A Mighty Wind — featured in the best-selling video game Bioshock Infinite.
What the heck is going on? How is a bunch of twenty somethings reviving an art form that by all rights should have been dead a century ago?
Well, technology has played a part. YouTube is full of young, hip barbershop quartets, and kids pay attention to YouTube.
But there may be something more elemental going on here too.
“Barbershopping is very much one of the best brotherhoods I’ve ever been a part of,” Whisler says.
Sutton and Fouse second that emotion. In fact, most barbershop performers will say they are awed by the music, but what they really love is what they are a part of.
Fouse — who works with youth as an assistant basketball coach at Rose Hill High outside of Wichita — said barbershopping helps provide a connection that can sometimes be lost once you reach a certain point in life.
“Most people have been a part of a team or group at some point, and then they’re not any longer,” Fouse said. “They need something like that again so that they’re not just going to work and then coming home to their problems.
“For me, this is so much about the brotherhood. There is something I like about knowing that each of us has to be individually solid in order for the group as a whole to be solid.”
Maybe it has taken a 20th Century relic to remind us of a truth about human nature: We’re in harmony when we’re part of something larger than ourselves.
To view more performances of the BoomTown Quartet, visit the group's YouTube channel.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at email@example.com.