If you had told me a few weeks ago that some of the best music I would see in North Carolina would be in the back room at a Barber Shop, I would have looked at you a little funny. Today I'm here to tell you it's true. For over 50 years, local musicians have gathered in the back room at The Barber Shop in Drexel, North Carolina and picked some tunes, chewed the fat and created one of the most wonderful music experiences in the country.
It all started when Lawrence Anthony was getting ready to deploy for the European theater during World War II. He picked up a guitar in Washington State for just $3 and carried it with him throughout the war. The guitar rode with him in his tank as he followed General Patton into battle and he would pick it during his downtime.
After the war, Anthony returned home to Drexel and started a career as a barber in 1949. Drexel was once a huge furniture manufacturing center so there were plenty of young men needing haircuts. He opened the current shop in 1964 and when he wasn't cutting hair, he'd sit back in his barber's chair and play that old guitar. One day, the town sheriff, whose office was a few doors down, saw him picking in his barber shop, and brought in his mandolin to join him. Whenever they both had some downtime, they would play together. At some point another local fellow who played the banjo happened by when they were playing and stopped in to join them. 54 years later people are still playing in Lawrence Anthony's barber shop. Mr. Anthony passed away in 2009, but the music lives on. Today, his son Carroll and longtime friend and fellow barber Dave Shirley keep the tradition alive.
"You look like a new face! Come on in and grab a cup of coffee and a seat" Dave calls to me from behind his barber's chair as I walk into the shop. He's giving a haircut to a local man as he has for more than 50 years at the Drexel Barber Shop. A haircut with a side of banter as I would soon find out. I think Dave's constant string of one-liners were the only thing moving faster than his scissors. His laughter and that of whomever he was talking to at any given moment were a constant through the afternoon I spent at the shop.
Carroll Anthony came over and introduced himself and showed me around his dad's shop. He pointed out photos of his father as a young man just starting out, and a wonderful photo of him in this current shop many years later. I got to see the guitar that rode through the war with his dad, which was also the guitar Carroll learned to play on. Also in the case with the guitar were his dad's army medals and a commemorative coin given to them by General Patton's grandson. The chair that Lawrence once manned sits empty now with only a guestbook and a donation can there to help preserve this living memorial to the man who started it all.
The walls of the shop were covered with photos of people who had played there and articles written about the famous Saturday jam sessions throughout the years. There was an easy chair where Lawrence once rested with a car side-view mirror mounted on the armrest so he could see who came in the door without turning around. A couch and a few other chairs and musical instruments were scattered around: two guitars on the couch, a bass resting in the corner by the heater and a shelf of assorted other instruments and cases. Throughout my short tour around the shop, the beautiful sound of bluegrass and laughter drifted out from the back room.
Once I'd had a look around, I went into this back room and took a seat. The people playing together were definitely a cross section of the region. One of the gentlemen, playing the mandolin, appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties while his grandfather, sitting next to him and playing the dobro, was in his eighties. The lady picking on the bass apparently rode up from Asheville just about every weekend to play. One gentleman was a dentist - people just called him "doc" - while another worked for the state forestry service. One made guitars for a living. Two of the pickers were professional musicians: Michael Reno Harrell who is an amazing, award winning guitarist and storyteller, and David Wiseman who has played mandolin with Doc Watson and the High Country Ramblers. Of course, it is just a jam session so you never know who might show up. This just happened to be my lucky day to catch them both in town. Believe me when I say this though, there was plenty of talent and an obvious love of music in everyone who was there, professional or not.
The musicians took turns taking the lead on a song, and everyone else would listen and nod along for a few beats and then join in. It was an amazing thing to see as they all came together so well and hard to believe that they didn't play together all the time. Between songs, they would laugh and exchange stories, some taller tales than others, and the whole thing gave off the most wonderful sense of community. It seemed like these people would try and get to The Barber Shop whenever they could and like they missed it when they couldn't be there. Music is such a wonderful thing and it can have the most amazing effect. When people who really love music get together and play, the result is nothing short of magic.
Other people came and went. Some stayed and played a while, and others like me just sat and listened. When Dave was finished cutting hair, he came and sat with me and told me stories about all of the people in the room. He had cut the hair of generations of men in that barber shop, and seemed to know everyone. I know that barber shops can be such a focal point in a community, even where I'm from in Washington D.C. Most of the men in my neighborhood have been going to Camillo's Barber Shop since I was a kid. In a small town though, especially one with only one shop, a barber can be the one person who interacts with everyone in any given 2-3 week period. He knows you, and has known you for years. He probably gave you your very first haircut, and eventually will cut your son's hair, and your grandson's. He probably knows all of the gossip as well. Dave is that barber, and his stories had me smiling from ear to ear and laughing out loud.
Dave's philosophy on life seemed to be to work hard, but not too hard and try and laugh and enjoy it as much as he could. He told me it was hard for someone to be angry at you if they were laughing and that is true if anything is. He told me he would rather be poor and happy and surrounded by friends and community than to be rich and constantly on guard. If you asked me to point out someone who had found contentment in their situation, I'd point you towards Dave. I know he's seen some tough times, he told me as much, but like me he prefers to go through life smiling at the world. I walked in that day a stranger and walked out a friend and places where that can happen over the course of a few hours are pretty rare. They're special places and this is a special place.
Dave took time to talk to a young man who was there who was probably in his early teens. He showed him some magic tricks, and picked some tunes on an old guitar while sharing some lighthearted wisdom with him. Inter-generational interactions like these are so important for people growing up. It seems we've let this slip in much of our society today, and it's costing us dearly. Young people are constantly re-inventing the wheel and it's often a huge and unnecessary expenditure of time and energy. Dave talking with this young fellow reminded me of the conversations I had had with my grandmother and great-grandmother growing up. I was learning things from them constantly many of which I wouldn't realize it for many years.
As the afternoon wore on, the musicians started to disperse for home or their gigs or wherever they were headed. I stayed on chatting to Dave and Carroll as they closed things up for another week. I didn't want it to end. Then a break in the rain came, and I decided I needed to take advantage of it so I took off back to my van and headed on down the highway.
My experience at the Drexel Barber Shop is one that will stay with me. I plan on returning whenever I'm in the area, and I look forward to seeing Dave and Carroll and some of the others again. But above all, I hope even when they're gone, and when I'm gone, that people will still be pickin' on Saturday afternoons down at the barber shop, because when the music stops in places like this, the world really loses something special.
The Drexel Barber Shop is located at 100 S. Main Street in Drexel, North Carolina. They have jam sessions during the afternoon every Saturday, and most Thursdays and Fridays too. Bring your instrument if you play, I'm sure they'd love to have you. If you don't play, come anyway. You can find them on Facebook HERE. You can also watch an Emmy nominated film about Lawrence Anthony and his barber shop called Pickin' and Trimmin' HERE.