Bristol's Fiddlin' Barber to Retire
By Daniel Gilbert | Bristol Herald Courier | January 25, 2008***This story appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier on Jan. 25, 2008***
BRISTOL, Va. ? The legendary "fiddlin' barber" will shut his doors for good next week after 58 years of clipping hair and playing hot bluegrass licks in his State Street shop.
During a weekly jam session Thursday (Jan. 24) at the Star Barber Shop, 80-year-old Gene Boyd announced he was retiring, citing his age and the slow pace of business as reasons for hanging up his shears.
Boyd's shop long has been a draw to musicians and will leave a void on The Crooked Road, Virginia's musical heritage trail.
"Thursday was the day we always picked," Boyd said, explaining why he chose to retire on that day next week. "It happens to be the last day of the month, and I thought I'd just call it quits."
A longtime promoter of country music, Boyd told the Herald Courier earlier this week he was thinking of retiring "at the end of the month" but made it official on Thursday. Though friends and family expected the announcement eventually, Boyd had never specified when.
Whenever his wife asked, Jerlis Boyd said, her husband would say, "What do you want me to do? Lay down and die?"
As he played fiddle Thursday, Boyd sat high in the red-cushioned barber chair from which he holds musical court. He will take it with him when he leaves, he said.
He wore headphones connected to a hearing aid as he played, bowing a few dissonant notes, with arthritic but still nimble hands.
The same hands helped ready naval ships in World War II and clipped the hair of his comrades-at-arms.
Playing the fiddle came naturally, Boyd said, with bluegrass in his blood. Cutting hair, by contrast, was an impromptu decision he made to avoid a court martial.
"I was drunk," Boyd said of the first time he picked up clippers, while stationed on the USS Corry 817 in Orange, Texas.
The way he and his wife tell the story, Boyd had passed out on deck when an officer woke him and demanded to know what he did.
"I'm a barber," Boyd told the officer, who marched him to the ship's barbershop and made him cut a seaman's hair.
"If the man had had any hair at all, [Boyd] would still be in the brig," quipped Jerlis Boyd.
When Boyd brought his bluegrass-inflected barbering to his hometown, haircuts were 25 cents and shaves 15 cents. Over his nearly six-decade career, Boyd's shop has been a favorite haunt for bluegrass aficionados ? local, international and a few big-timers.
"Bill Monroe used to sit there," Boyd said, pointing to a chair.
The dark wood paneling of the Star Barber Shop is plastered with plaques, photos of musicians, yellowing newspaper clips honoring Boyd and country music ? and several fiddles.
But in recent years, the fiddlin' barber has slowed down. Arthritis in his hip limits the hours he can work, and his minimal schedule ? he's open until 2 p.m. just three days a week ? limits his business. He had a stroke five or six years ago.
While he jokes, "I've outlived all my clients," his wife notes that the overhead costs of the barber business have become prohibitive.
As Boyd nears his professional coda, the jury is still out on which he does better ? play fiddle or cut hair.
The man himself deflected the question to his clients.
"I like other people to say," Boyd said.
Those present Thursday waxed diplomatic.
"He's good at both of them," said Wanda Booher, who has patronized his shop with her husband, a bass player, for 45 years.
"He's excellent at both," said Earl Brown, a bluegrass musician who is pictured on Boyd's wall playing with U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.
"I wouldn't know how to distinguish," said Dennis Sturgill, another musician.
Outside the shop, however, Richard Bateman answered less equivocally.
"Oh, playing the fiddle," said Bateman, who has played alongside Boyd and been under his clippers.
Thursday will be the last time bluegrass notes resonate inside the Star Barber Shop. Jerlis Boyd plans to make a cake and cookies. Come February, Boyd's regulars will have to find a new venue where they can jam.
They're welcome at his house, he said.