Oil City Slickers Hit All the Right (Barbershop) Notes
Let's say it's Valentine's Day and you're a lady busily working away in your office, a little concerned that you haven't received a card or flowers or anything. Then suddenly through the door comes a barbershop quartet, in full straw-hatted splendor; they sing you two great old love songs and deliver to you a rose and a card--all on behalf of your beloved, of course.
There's a chance you might cry.
"Valentine's is one of the most fun times we have," says Stephen D. Lunsford, a member of an esteemed local group known as the Oil City Slickers, who'll perform on this year's Beartrap stage.
Barbershop singing got its start in the 1930s, ostensibly in the establishments for which it's named, but the Slickers got their start in 1968, Lunsford says, "when a bunch of people in the community--including some judges and attorneys--decided they wanted to sing barbershop, and the group grew from there."
According to Wikipedia the style consists of "consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture; in tags or codas, some appropriate embellishment can be created."
Got that? Don't worry. You don't have to understand the technicalities to enjoy the performance. One aficionado says that barbershop, when sung well, has a sound that's more than the sum of its parts." A "ringing tone," as it's often described.
Lunsford joined the group in 1986, but his love of music is life-long: "I've always enjoyed any music with harmonies," he says, "from church choirs to bands in school. So I guess I'm just hard-wired to love barbershop." And he's not alone. The worldwide Barbershop Harmony Society currently has thousands of members, with annual conventions and a special category for youthful harmonizers.
While "Sweet Adeline" and "Ragtime Gal" are the unofficial anthems of the barbershop style, many groups have updated contemporary songs to the historic format, including (believe it or not) Sting's Grammy-winning "Roxanne."
But there's an older song that Lunsford cherishes in his memories of past Oil City Slickers performances: "It was Mother's Day, and we sang for a group of women meeting at a hall in Casper. There were five generations there, from babies-in-arms on up, and we did the song 'I'm Glad That God Made Little Girls.' There were tears, all around the room. That's how we know we've achieved our goal."
A barbershop quartet has four members, but when the Oil City Slickers go onstage they'll have seven harmonizers, which technically makes them "either a large quartet, or a barbershop chorus," according to Lunsford. But it's a perfect-sized ensemble to achieve that trademark "ringing tone."
There won't be roses and Valentine cards at their performances, but little girls of all ages are especially welcome. It's likely that there'll be some appropriate embellishments. And regardless of your gender, you might even cry.