ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Nashville, you can hear the chords of competitive Barbershop Quartet. Tomorrow, the Barbershop Harmony Society will crown one quartet its international champion. Nearly 10,000 people have been in Nashville this week for the event.
But it is not entirely harmonious, as Blake Farmer reports from member station WPLN.
BLAKE FARMER: In a hotel lobby this week, a foursome broke out in song.
(Soundbite of song "Down Our Way")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Down our way.
FARMER: Judging by their nametags, one of them is from New Hampshire, two from New York, another from Georgia. Despite geographic diversity, they all know this song, "Down Our Way," because it's a standard for barbershop. It can be found in the "Pole Cat Book," which is like the barbershop hymnal.
But behind the singing, there's been a good-natured squabble about the 70-year-old Harmony Society's future. The new chief executive, Ed Watson, says it keeps him busy.
Mr. ED WATSON (Chief Executive, Barbershop Harmony Society): All the time, believe me. I really believe that the kibbers - we call them kibbers, keep it barbershop - want the same thing that the libbers, which is the liberal interpretation of barbershop.
FARMER: The kibbers and the libbers?
Mr. WATSON: The kibbers and the libbers. What we want to see is a thriving and healthy protection of barbershop's style of music go off into the future as something that is viable and can still stand on its own.
FARMER: The society's numbers have fallen in recent decades to roughly 28,000, down from a peak of 40,000. The group has evolved. For starters, it shortened the name and recently opened up competition to more modern songs like this arrangement from the quartet, OC Times.
(Soundbite of song "Fun Fun Fun")
OC TIMES (Barbershop Quartet): (Singing) She'll have fun, fun, fun, 'til Daddy takes the T-Bird away.
FARMER: Still, not that modern.
Mr. WATSON: We had a quartet a few years ago sing "ABC 123" by Michael Jackson.
(Singing) A, B, C, 1, 2, 3.
That's not a good barbershop vehicle. But they did it and they did not get disqualified for it. Now, the audience didn't particularly like it.
FARMER: And that's the challenge - balancing the preservation of an art form while appealing to a younger generation. Guys like retiree Jack Martin think the society has gone too far in trying to get with the times.
Mr. JACK MARTIN (Chairman, Barbershop Quartet Preservation Association): I happen to be one of many that has difficulty in telling you what barbershop is, but I can sure tell you when it isn't.
FARMER: Martin chairs a group of 300 hardliners who call themselves the Barbershop Quartet Preservation Association. He and his compatriots are still part of the Harmony Society, but he estimates roughly 20 percent of the society's members share his persuasion to keep barbershop the way it is, or was.
(Soundbite of music)
MUSIC CITY CHORUS: (Singing) Welcome, welcome everyone. Just sing your cares away.
FARMER: At a rehearsal of Nashville's Music City Chorus ahead of the big convention, the men go through a routine with stage smiles so big they must hurt.
MUSIC CITY CHORUS: (Singing) We'd like to make you...
FARMER: Barbershop's unique sound comes from having the tenor line above the lead and heavy use of 7th chords.
(Singing) One, three, five, seven.
Freeman Groat has been singing barbershop so long he actually learned in a barbershop. He says that every guy lives to experience what's called the expanded sound, or the fifth voice, which is created by overtones.
Mr. FREEMAN GROAT (Barbershop Singer): When you go into a shower stall or some place, in a bathroom, and you start singing and all of a sudden you hear, whoo, boy, that sounded big.
FARMER: It kind of gives you goose bumps, sort of, when it hits right?
Mr. GROAT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Mr. AARON MOSS (Barbershop Singer): We call it locking in.
FARMER: Twenty-five-year-old Aaron Moss has been a barbershopping little more than a year. While he enjoys the more modern songs, he doesn't make much of the kibber-libber dispute.
Mr. MOSS: No two people who are singing together can hate each other in the moment.
FARMER: But in a group where the average age is well into retirement years, generational issues are a problem. Voices closer in age blend better. While Moss would like to start a quartet of his own, he hasn't found enough guys under 30 to join him.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
SIEGEL: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.