Of Bluegrass and Barbers

Where else but in Bristol, Virginia, the birthplace of country music, would you find a fiddling barber? Where else would you find a barber often featured in Jim Scancarelli’s comic strip “Gasoline Alley”? In what other barber shop in America can you find a barber with over 50 years’ experience in both cutting hair and making bluegrass music?

Every Thursday morning, a group of some of the most talented musicians this side of Nashville gather amid the Vitalis, Osage Rub, and Pinaud Clubman Talc to give Star Barber Shop patrons a free concert. They even take requests.

Gene Boyd began the Star Barber Shop business in 1950, and his relationship with music goes back even farther. He began playing bluegrass around age 10 and performed with such local groups as the Holston Valley Gang, the Boys from Hickory Tree and Leon Kiser and the Holston Mountain Boys. Mr. Boyd has performed with Bill Monroe, Jim and Jessee and Roni Stoneman. Fellow Bristolian Ernie Ford was a disc jockey when Mr. Boyd played bluegrass on the radio. Mr. Boyd was awarded a BCMA Lifetime Achievement Award by the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in 1998. He also appears in an English film company video titled “Crawdaddy-from Bristol to Bristol.”

Music provides a strong bond between the musicians who frequent the Star Barber Shop and their families. On the Thursday morning that I visited the shop, one guitar player’s daughter had accompanied him to the shop and proudly declared to me, “That’s my daddy!”

Another Star Barber Shop regular player showed me a guitar that had been handmade by his son. The guitar featured beautifully inlaid tiny mosaic tiles around the base and down the neck.

“Does he do that for a living?” I asked.

The man laughed. “Nah. He works at Eastman.”

Mr. Boyd’s own fiddle is a lovely piece of his own craftsmanship. The only place some of the cherry finish has worn thin is where Mr. Boyd’s left hand holds the neck. This is a fiddle that has been played often and with a great deal of love and respect for the instrument and for the music it emits.

If you’re ever in Bristol, Virginia, on a Thursday morning, go by the Star Barber Shop at 1003 West State Street. You’ll be welcomed with a cup of coffee, a song, and a haircut, if you want one.

Everyone Welcome…Except Maybe Big Maude

You might think that Floyd’s City Barber Shop with its homespun charm and “two chairs, no waiting” exists only in The Andy Griffith Show reruns. After all, who can run a successful business and still take time to shoot the breeze with passersby? Well, don’t tell anyone that you heard it from me, but Russell Hiatt can.

Want a good haircut and all the latest gossip about the fine folks from Mayberry? Then stop in at Floyd’s City Barber Shop on Main Street in Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina. I did. I didn’t get a haircut, but I did get a few interesting tales. Now, here again, you didn’t hear any of this from me, but Andy recently came home to dedicate a stretch of road named in his honor. It’s officially called The Andy Griffith Parkway, but some people are already calling it “Andy’s Road.” They’re not really ones to put on the dog in Mayberry, you know…er, I mean, Mount Airy. And you know Hal Smith who played Otis the town drunk on the show? He confessed to Mr. Hiatt that he’d never drank in his life. And Ernest T. Bass? He isn’t a nutty little troublemaker at all. He’s a really nice guy named Howard Morris who has visited Floyd’s City Barber Shop a number of times. Helen Crump (a/k/a Aneta Corsaut) came for a visit once and brought along about 500 people from a tour in Winston-Salem. That visit provided the inspiration for Mr. Hiatt’s “Wall of Fame.”

It was about fourteen years ago that Ms. Crump paid that visit. Since then, Mr. Hiatt has put 23,000 photographs on his wall (and has another 1,800 ready to be placed, though finding 1,800 empty spaces might pose a problem). These photographs include everyday people (like me), a Cleveland, Ohio woman (who was the first to be photographed for the “Wall of Fame”), governors, major league ballplayers and officials, Oprah Winfrey (whose father Vernon is a barber in Nashville, Tennessee), and even “The Incredible Hulk” Lou Ferrigno.

“Now that one fills up a barber chair,” observes Mr. Hiatt, pointing out the photo of Lou Ferrigno.

It’s true. I’ll bet even Aunt Bee and Clara peeped around the corner from Snappy Lunch in order to get a better look at the muscle-bound, smiling actor.

Mr. Hiatt has had a lot of fun over the past 56 years being “Floyd the barber.” Who’d have thought that cutting Andy Griffith’s hair when Andy was in college would play such a role in shaping Mr. Hiatt’s life? Howard McNear who played Floyd Lawson on The Andy Griffith Show suffered a stroke in the show’s last year, 1968. Mr. McNear died on January 3, 1969. Thus, the real life “Floyd” attends Mayberry’s reunions and celebrations. When he gets back home, he once again gets out the scissors and the comb and goes back to work.

I have to say, Russell Hiatt is a real Mayberry kind of guy. He faithfully visits his mother-now 98-in the nursing home; and every other Sunday, he helps cook dinner for the entire family (23 in all). And much like Floyd Lawson, you can’t one-up him no matter how hard you try. I showed him photographs of my boy-girl twins, and danged if he didn’t turn right around and point out a photograph of his boy-girl twins (just two of his ten great-grandchildren).

In 2000, Mr. Hiatt was inducted into the Barbering Hall of Fame. “If I’d retired, I’d have missed that,” he told me. “And if I’d stayed home today, I’d have missed you…and I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”

That said, consider yourself warned about visiting Mount Airy/Mayberry. We watch The Andy Griffith Show, and we get preconceived notions about what these townspeople might be like. Then you go there and find that it’s really better than anything Hollywood could concoct. You go to the Visitor’s Center and Ann and Millie make you feel like a VIP, and then Mr. Hiatt treats you like family. I was almost surprised that no deputy stopped me on the way out of town to give me a jar of pickles…but then again, someone did mention that that particular deputy was mostly on duty on Fridays.