Here’s a riddle: 50 people walk into Drexel Barber Shop on Saturday morning. Only four walk out with haircuts. Why?
The shop is always open for haircuts on Saturdays, but everyone comes for the bluegrass. Who, exactly, “everyone” is depends on the week. At minimum, “everyone” includes a mix of local musicians and residents who, for generations, have passed down the tradition of gathering in the shop on Saturdays for its legendary picking sessions. Today, “everyone” also includes a woman from Lenoir who’s celebrating her 85th birthday — according to her husband, she’s been talking about coming here for days. Last year, “everyone” included international visitors from Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, and England. Owner Carroll Anthony credits the Internet with the shop’s newfound fame: Drexel Barber Shop’s Facebook page now has more followers than the town has residents.
Our State sat down with Anthony between sets to learn more about how one family-owned barbershop is making joyful noise in a quiet Burke County town.
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OS: Your father, Lawrence Anthony, opened Drexel Barber Shop in February 1949. How did the picking sessions that the shop is now well known for come about?
Anthony: When Dad wasn’t busy cutting hair, he would sit down and pick on the guitar a little bit. The chief of police played a mandolin, and he would come in to play with my dad, sometimes for an hour or so, just sitting around and playing until the police chief got a call. Then other guys started coming in — it’d be one banjo player here, one mandolin player there — to sit and play while Dad was cutting hair. It got to the point where he had a rearview mirror on the chair he rested in during the afternoon. When he saw someone walk in, if it was a musician, he would just motion them on to the back; if it was a customer, he’d get up and make his way over to the barber chair.
OS: When were you bit by the bluegrass bug?
Anthony: I didn’t get into what my dad was doing in the shop at first, because I didn’t really care much for bluegrass as a teenager. I was more into the long-haired guys, the Beatles — I even had one of the first Beatles-style haircuts in the area. But as I widened my horizons in the music field, I started to hear a lot of bluegrass tones within other music genres. When I took over the shop after my dad died in December 2009, I began to really appreciate bluegrass. It’s local music; it speaks to where we’re from in the mountains.
OS: Saturdays have always been the busiest day for picking at the shop; at times, more than 40 musicians will fill the back room, beginning around noon and playing until they’re tired. How much preparation goes into organizing these jam sessions each week?
Anthony: To prepare, I just start the coffee machine and get the doors open. Sometimes we’ll even turn on the barber pole. The people in town support us by showing up, either as musicians or as spectators. I couldn’t pay these guys to come here; they come on their own because they like it. It feels like a family get-together every weekend.
OS: You created the Drexel Barber Shop Heritage Fund in 2009 when you first took ownership of the shop. Where did your inspiration for the fund come from, and where do the proceeds go?
CA: When Dad began to fall ill, I asked him one day what he wanted to do with the barbershop, because I knew it was going to land in my lap eventually. He wanted to keep the music going, so I said, “OK, well, that’s what we’ll do then.” When he passed, we started accepting donations in lieu of flowers for the newly founded Drexel Barber Shop Heritage Fund. Now, we have buckets in the shop for people to leave donations, and the money we collect goes to general maintenance and shop renovations so we can keep the doors open.
OS: While anyone is welcome to play, nearly everyone who joins in is a skilled, experienced musician. Are many of the people who play here professional musicians?
CA: It’s just whoever comes in. We may have some professional musicians or local guys, but that makes no difference — they’re all good. Most of the musicians who play here have played bluegrass their entire lives, but they come from all walks of life. One of our bass players is a dental technician who makes fake teeth; some are farmers, carpenters, and house builders. The professional musicians use these jam sessions as practice. They’ll come in here, get their licks straightened up, and then go on and play somewhere else tonight. We all just gather for the music and have a good time.
OS: The shop has recently garnered national and international acclaim; last year, visitors came from Florida, Tokyo, Australia, and other far-flung locales. Why do you think people travel around the world to the small town of Drexel to be part of your jam sessions?
CA: Music is an international language. When people come here from foreign places, they hear the music and they feel it. They understand it. Music just crosses all borders. The bluegrass genre is played internationally now, but its roots lead right here, within a 50-mile radius of this barbershop. While it’s incredible to know that there are so many people playing bluegrass music around the world, bluegrass is our local music, so it’s a different experience to hear it being played here.
OS: How does public power contribute to the establishment of a public gathering place in Drexel?
CA: The barbershop is certainly a bright spot in the community, and we couldn’t do what we do without public power. It keeps the barber pole out there going — my dad always wanted a barber pole, so when I found one some time ago at a flea market, we put it up. We also use some electric power for the music; while it’s mostly acoustic, we occasionally use electronic amplifiers.
OS: The Drexel of your childhood was a lively and booming small town, but that changed when Drexel Heritage Furniture and Drexel Knitting Mills closed their factories. How has the role of the barbershop shifted since then?
CA: Honestly, the biggest role of the barbershop now is providing somewhere for people to come every morning. Dad never thought he would be the last business in town, but the barbershop is basically the only thing left in Drexel. We don’t have a community center anymore, so this is the last place where people can gather and socialize. You can still get a haircut, but that’s not the most important thing here anymore.
OS: What does it mean to you to be the caretaker of your father’s legacy?
CA: This shop was Dad’s business for 69 years, and he loved coming to the shop every day. Keeping the shop open reminds me of him; it’s a memorial to him and what he started. It’s a landmark now. I feel a responsibility to be here every Saturday that I can to keep his dream alive. The shop is a family business, and I couldn’t bear to sell it. I think it’s my duty to keep it going, and when I pass on, we’ll see who’s next in line.