The Appalachian Express Chorus, a men’s singing group from the Tri-Cities that performs and competes in this uniquely American style, which features a capella harmony with a theatrical element, is celebrating its 45th birthday this year.
“I’ve only been in it for a couple of years, and it’s contagious,” said Jerre Whitson, a board member and vice-president of scheduling for the nonprofit group. “If you love music and you love any type of harmony, you just fall in love with the chorus. It’s a different type of singing than your church music or Southern gospel or anything like that, but it’s just really moving.”
Barbershop choruses and quartets have their roots in a time with far fewer forms of entertainment than today.
“By and large, the way it started was with men gathering at the barbershop; this was in the late 1800s,” said Tony Bowman, minister of worship at Trinity Baptist Church in Jonesborough, who has been part of the chorus for 38 years and has directed it for 30.
“Men would just stand around and harmonize at the barbershop,” he said. “Then [just after the turn of the century] lots of barbershop quartets became performing quartets and went with the vaudeville [traveling stage] shows. Then radio came along, and when radio came along, barbershop quartets started to fade.”
Even though radio popularized new types of music, the barbershop art form hung on in singing groups around the country, Bowman said. This year, the Barbershop Harmony Society, which was formed in 1938 to promote the singing style, celebrates its 75th anniversary with just shy of 25,000 members in the United States and Canada.
In the last few years, the advent of reality television has given it a resurgence, Bowman said, and today the average age of new barbershop singers is 20.
The Appalachian Express Chorus boasts more than 50 members from all over the Tri-Cities region: from Rogersville, Tenn., to Glade Spring, Va., and everywhere in between, including Kingsport and Johnson City. It is always looking for new members.
This spring, the group placed fourth in its annual competition, out of 27 musical groups from the Southeast. Several performances are scheduled in the Tri-Cities region in the next few months, and tickets are typically around $15.
The chorus is performing at the Johnson City Memorial Park Community Center on May 10 and at the Dobyns-Bennett High School auditorium on May 11.
Anyone interested in more information about the Appalachian Express Chorus or upcoming performances can call 423-384-9992 or 423-943-2482. Anyone who wants to join the group can also simply show up to rehearsal, which is at 7 p.m. every Monday at Crossroads Christian Church in Gray.
In addition to the all-male Appalachian Express Chorus, the Tri-Cities also has an all-female barbershop singing group. Based in Bristol, Va., it’s a chapter of an international network of female barbershop singers called the Sweet Adelines.
“It’s something that’s not just a fly-by-night type of thing,” Whitson said of the barbershop singing style. “As long as people love to sing harmony, it’s going to continue.”