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Haircuts & Bluegrass


By David Decker

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This writer's father was born in 1920. Males from daddy's time wore their hair much shorter than females. Daddy never understood why young men from my generation wore long hair. He would often ridicule and rail against the practice, even calling me by cute, female names when my hair grew longer than his - just to drive home the point.

Until I was eighteen, and as long as I lived in mama and daddy's house, it was understood that I would wear my hair like a man. This meant regular trips to the local barber shop. In our little community of Riverside, there were a couple of places one could get a haircut. But, only one place where the patrons could get a haircut and enjoy a concert all in the same visit.

Smallwood's Barber Shop was located in a small, stand-alone, cement block building at the corner of Paul Avenue and Bolton Road. The tiny, cube-shaped building had a large picture window in front. It was easy to tell if all the chairs were filled as you pulled into the rough, pea-gravel parking lot. Smallwood's was a man's place, and a true throw-back to barber shops of the past - complete with a rotating red, white, and blue barber pole at the front door.

I do not remember the first names of any of the Smallwood brothers, but there were four of them. One was tall, rugged looking, and seemingly the eldest of the clan. One was short and dumpy. Each one of the brothers wore the standard white, barber shirts - with snaps up the side. Their barber chairs faced Bolton Road, presumably so that the customers could look out the big picture window at the passing traffic while getting their, "ears lowered." There were large mirrors that covered the opposite wall. Once your haircut was done, the chair would be quickly spun around so you could examine the damage that had just been done to your head.

It is unlikely that any of the brothers ever graduated from barber school. I do not remember seeing diplomas on the wall. There were no sinks for shampooing, nor hair dryers. This was clearly not a, "hair salon." There were no style choices at Smallwood's. There was just one haircut - short, with "white sidewalls." Any one of the brothers could service a customer, in and out of the chair, in less than ten minutes. In every case the finishing touches were a sprinkle of witch-hazel, a buff or two with a brush filled with talcum powder, and the hair clippings blown from your neck and clothing with a tiny, high-powered air hose. Many were the times as a young boy that I begged to, "blow myself" - just so I could get my hands on that air hose.

Today, I am told that barber shops and style shops offer neck and upper back massages with the price of a haircut. I cannot fathom what would have transpired at Smallwood's if one of the brothers had started massaging someone's neck after a haircut - but I suspect it would not have been pretty.

One of the most memorable parts of the haircut at Smallwood's was the hot lather machine. In order to get a sharp edge on the white sidewalls, the brothers would use a straight razor and shave around the edges of the sideburns and neckline. I remember them sharpening the razors on the big leather strap that was affixed to the arm of the barber chair. But, more than this, I remember how warm and good the hot lather felt right out of the machine, as they applied it to the sides of your face and the neckline.

At Smallwood's, the "cherry on top" of the haircut was music. Bluegrass music. Each of the four brothers played, and all were proficient on different instruments. There was banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. Their instruments were always on display in the shop - leaning in a corner, or hung by a leather strap from one of the coat racks that lined the walls. If all four brothers were busy with customers, whenever one finished (unless there were customers still waiting) he would pick up his instrument and begin to play. As each brother finished, they would grab an instrument and join in. 

It was not uncommon to see a shop full of customers, some still draped with barber cloths, tapping their feet and singing along as the Smallwood brothers played. Sometimes, clients brought their own instruments and joined in. It was a lot like having a daily, mini bluegrass festival in that small, community barber shop. Even the shoe shine boy joined in - playing either the spoons or the "juice harp." It seemed to be understood, that even if you could not play an instrument, you were still welcome join in by simply tapping your foot or keeping time by the nod of your head.

Without question, had they even been around back then, there would have been no Taylor Swift nor Lady Antebellum numbers played at Smallwood's. Rather, the older a song or artist was, the better the brothers liked it. Artists like Gid Tanner & The Skillet Lickers, and Fiddlin' John Carson, were staple in the Smallwood jam sessions. An occasional number by Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb or Roy Acuff would find its way into the mix. As this writer, himself, grew as a musician, priceless history lessons were learned at Smallwood's Barber Shop regarding the indigenous music of American culture. I can only wish that I had realized at the time how important this exposure was. 

Sadly, one by one the Smallwood brothers eventually began dying off. At some point during the 1970's, their little shop closed. I do not remember where daddy went thereafter to get his haircut. But, I am certain that there was never another Smallwood's Barber Shop in his life. I am profoundly glad that now, these many years later, I can remember it being a part of mine. 


Copyright 2013 David Decker

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