Straight No Chaser Making A Cappella Cool
My grandfather was in a barbershop quartet. His a cappella group was called The Four Guardsmen.
They were pretty good. They played some big rooms in Reno. They all had great voices and harmonized quite well. Their concerts were very entertaining. Between songs, they talked to the crowd and told jokes.
I only remember seeing them perform a few times but I liked what I heard and saw. They probably could have gone professional but they were all family men with good jobs who didn’t want to spend 300 days a year on the road making a go of it.
They were also about a decade too late. By the time they started performing, popular culture had been hijacked by teenagers and the dominate music genre was rock and roll—about the furthest thing from barbershop quartet.
My grandfather, who had a great voice, led a hardcore barbershop quartet. They weren’t part barbershop and part doo wop. They were full on barbershop and performed traditional barbershop songs like “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines, Nellie.”
Let’s be honest, barbershop quartet is not, nor has it ever been, the hippest genre of music. It’s down there in the dustbin of nerd alongside polka, marching band music, and that genre from the 1920s where the singer used a megaphone. Barbershop quartet is not even the coolest sub-genre of a cappella—that would be doo wop.
That’s not to say my grandfather and his mates, or any other barbershop foursome for that matter, can’t or don’t make great music. It’s just that the music they make is far from the vanguard. Even my pop-pop would agree that barbershop, and a cappella music in general, is the opposite of hip hop and a general chick repellent (no offense to my grandmother).
It’s not that a cappella is inherently lame. The style has been used by popular musicians for generations and has produced some hit songs. Artists that have dabbled in a cappella include Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and the News, Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men, and Brandy Norwood.
Some pop stars have released vocal-only versions of their most popular songs/albums—sort of a backdoor a cappella. The most famous example of this is Jay-Z’s Black Album. Danger Mouse took the a cappella version of the Black Album and mixed it with The Beatles’ The White Album. He called his final product The Grey Album.
What kept my grandfather’s barbershop quartet in anonymity, and what stunts most pure a cappella groups, isn’t a lack of instruments but material. Music written for a cappella groups seldom light up the charts.
To get around that, all you have to do is one simple thing. It’s the same thing the a cappella dectet Straight No Chaser does all the time and that’s perform hit pop songs.
It’s an unexplained phenomenon but people love it when artists from marginalized music styles, like a cappella, perform popular songs. The geekier the musicians, the cooler the song, then the more people will love it. I don’t know why or how but that’s just the way it is.
This explains why we love it when country musicians cover hip hop bands and "Weird Al" Yankovic does Polka versions of Top 40 hits. You probably don’t even like polka music, and you might not even like the original songs Yankovic covers, but hearing the “Best Song Ever” and “Thrift Shop” played on an accordion is awesome.
The phenomenon also explains why people love it when Straight No Chaser performs songs like “Moves Like Jagger,” “Blurred Lines,” “Call Me Maybe,” and “Sexy and I Know It.”
This fall and winter, you can catch the thoroughly entertaining Straight No Chaser live and in concert. Their “Happy Hour Tour 2014” kicks off Oct. 14 in Bakersfield, California. It ends Jan. 3 in Honolulu at the Hawai’i Theatre.
Look for SNC to perform matinees in Denver, Hershey, Cleveland, Chicago, and Indianapolis. Since the band formed at Indiana University, they’ll spend two days in Indianapolis, Dec. 21 and Dec. 22, performing at the Murat Theater at Old National Centre.
In the New Year, SNC ventures overseas for a series of shows in the United Kingdom. Their European tour begins Jan. 28 in London and ends Feb. 24 in Zurich. They will also visit Dublin, Berlin, and Paris.
Straight No Chaser Lineup
In addition to the great harmonies and vocalizations, Straight No Chaser is super charming and they yuck it up on stage. They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you dance, and if you’re a mom, grandma, or aunt, they’ll make you swoon.
There is another way an a cappella group, or artist performing a marginalized style of music, can win over fans and that’s performing Christmas music.
The so-called “cool” bands generally eschew holiday carols (because Christmas music isn’t cool) and to be quite frank they don’t really do the Yuletide tunes justice. Dave Matthews Band and Justin Timberlake are great for most seasons but they don’t come to mind when one thinks of the Noel season.
Needless to say, Straight No Chaser performs Christmas music. In fact, their first two albums were dedicated to Santa’s big day.
They released Holiday Spirits in 2008 and Christmas Cheers in 2009. The works contains secular and religious carols as well as “Indiana Christmas,” “Who Spiked The Eggnog?” “Donde Esta Santa Claus,” and a live version of "The 12 Days of Christmas." Expect to hear some holiday harmonies during Straight No Chaser’s upcoming tour.
The ten-man band released their first non-Christmas album in 2010. With A Twist contains instrument-less renditions of “Wonderwall,” “Single Ladies,” and “Fix You.” Their latest opus, Under the Influence, dropped in May of 2013.
If my grandfather’s barbershop quarter had covered some popular music tunes then maybe this writer would now be enjoying the boons of a hefty trust fund. As it is, my grandfather and his fellow crooners did their thing and entertained a lot of people. That’s exactly what Straight No Chaser is doing today.
By David B.