As thousands of singers converge on Nashville for an international convention of barbershop harmony music, the old-fashioned music style is facing discord among its fans.
The 70-year-old Barbershop Harmony Society moved to Tennessee last year from Kenosha, Wis., as a part of a move by leadership to recruit more youth and modernize the organization.
About 8,500 have been in Nashville this week to see the competitions and performances, including an appearance Friday night at the Grand Ole Opry.
But traditionalists of the a capella chorus music that dates back to 1900 have accused leaders of forgetting the past. Some members have started the Barbershop Quartet Preservation Association, a parallel organization with its own convention and meetings.
"What others want to do, we take no exception," said Jack Martin, the newer group's chairman. "We just want to do our thing."
The signature sound of four unaccompanied male voices singing in harmony has been the roots of the style, but modernizers want new blood and fresh ideas. Supporters of the traditional style are also known as "kibbers," for the slogan "Keep It Barbershop."
The traditionalists question the use of modern songs in barbershop harmonizing. Some say the chord structures don't lend themselves to harmonizing because they are based on the blues, not classical sounds.
Singers stay close despite disputes
Also at dispute is the rise of big barbershop choruses instead of the traditional quartet. The Westminster Chorus, a group in their 20s and 30s from Southern California, used a modern songbook to win last year's international barbershop convention and appeared on the television variety show "America's Got Talent."
Ed Watson, the Barbershop Harmony Society's executive director, said the drive to recruit new members through collegiate quartets and school music programs is necessary to sustain the organization.
The average barbershop singer is 63 years old, but new members are averaging a sprightly 49.5.
"If we can get them singing, the young kids, then they'll think it's cool," Watson said. "We don't expect returns right away, but it's something we can't retreat from doing."
Even with the disputes, traditionalists and those favoring modern sounds are still singing together and forming close bonds, says Liz Garnett, a musicologist with the Birmingham Conservatoire in England who studies barbershop music.
"To some extent, the debates sound more polarized than they really are," said Garnett. "There will be these intense debates, but then someone will say, 'This is barbershop music, and barbershoppers are nice people.'"