It’s time to say “Hats off and farewell!” as The Country Four barbershop quartet retires. All they’ve ever needed is a pitch pipe and each other. Fifty-six years after they first began, their voices are still strong and their hearts light, as the members of The Country Four barbershop quartet gather around the kitchen table of Glenn Allin and his wife Jean in Newcastle, for a spontaneous rendition of the gospel standard, “He Touched Me.”
Four separate pitch-perfect voices come together as one, and the choice of song seems appropriate, as they sing with conviction the words, “And oh, the joy that fills my soul.” Not only do the four men still have good voices but, perhaps more notable after all these years, they still enjoy each other’s company – not just singing, but talking, drinking coffee, sharing a lot of memories and a lot of laughter.
The Country Four – Glenn Allin, bass; Don Staples, tenor; Jack Allin, lead; and Merrill Brown, baritone – holds the honour of being listed in the Guinness World Records as the world’s “most durable barbershop quartet.” The group earned that title in 2003 – fifty years after it first started in Orono – for “performing regularly for a total of 50 years in and around Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.”
“It’s very British of them to say we’re ‘durable,’” says Merrill, at 73 years of age, the quartet’s youngest member. Jack is 74, Glenn is 82, and Don is 85.
Merrill is laughing, wondering out loud if being called “durable” is really such an honour but, he decides it is more accurate and more flattering than being called the world’s oldest quartet.
“We never took ourselves too seriously, that’s what keeps us going,” he says. “We were there to entertain ourselves. It was a bonus that others found us entertaining too.”
That comment leads Jack to recall when they started: “At our first practice, I can still remember, it was so much fun, I just felt like I never touched the highway [driving] all the way home.”
That practice was held at the apartment Glenn and Jean were renting over Oscar (Bud) W. Rolph’s hardware store on Main St. in Orono. Their first public performance would be at the Orono United Church. “We were all from the country, that’s how the name started,” notes Glenn. None of the men could have imagined then that they would still be singing together today.
Now 56 years later, they have two more songs they have chosen to sing to help enlighten this reporter. And each song, like the first one, seems appropriate: “Sentimental Journey,” and “If There’s Anybody Here From Out of Town.”
“Don took the lyrics to ‘If There’s Anybody Here…’ and improvised, to make the American references Canadian,” says Merrill. “That’s been one of our signature songs over the last 15 years.” Jack takes the lead: “If there’s anybody here from my home town, step up and say hello…Here’s to every province in Canada.” And you can hear they have truly made the song their own.
But now the four group members – speaking also for a fifth member, alternate baritone, Mervyn Scott – say they have officially hung up their hats. They are having so much fun with their impromptu performance; it is hard to understand why they are stopping.
“I think everyone felt the same way at the same time,” explains Jack. “We want to be remembered for what we could do, not what we can’t do.”
And so The Country Four gave its last public performance with Merrill this summer at the Peony Festival at Parkwood Estate in Oshawa; and its last public performance with Merv (who has filled in for Merrill over the winter months for the past 15 years) in September at the Newcastle Horticultural Society.
“It’s just time,” says Jack. “For the last two or three years, we’ve averaged a singing engagement a week.” When you take into account that the group holds one or two rehearsals for every performance, it’s easy to see the men were maintaining quite a busy schedule.
“Our wives have been very tolerant. There’s been a lot of practice time, and a lot of travel time,” says Merrill. “We also did have other lives. We all did work for a living.” “We couldn’t have done it without our wives,” adds Don. “And we couldn’t have done it without Merv Scott. I am a snowbird. He stepped in and kept us alive,” continues Merrill. Glenn agrees, “He saved our quartet when Merrill had to go south. He’s just a great guy.” “He’d drop everything to go sing,” says Don.
“And we’ve been fortunate health-wise all these years,” says Merrill. Indeed, the singing and camaraderie seem to have had a beneficial effect, as the men look younger than their years. “Any doctor will tell you that [the singing] keeps you young,” says Don. “The breathing helps.”
While they have kept track of the years, it has just been too much to keep track of the number of engagements. Their best estimate is that they have performed well over a thousand times. And while the majority of their shows have been in southern Ontario, especially Durham Region, engagements have also taken them to the U.S., Jamaica, and England.
A wonderful collection of photos documents their shows over the years. One notable photo shows the group singing with the Canadian Ambassador to Jamaica. Another shows the four men, following a performance at the opening of a city council meeting, with Oshawa Mayor Nancy Diamond, who was moved to pronounce April “Harmony Month” in her city.
The Country Four have sung at the Seniors’ Jubilee and at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, and participated in two separate productions of the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man, performing as the school board. They have done countless Christmas shows at Cullen Gardens, street festivals and Mother’s Day appearances. “We’ve been in big halls, and not-so-big halls,” says Merrill.
All this time, the quartet has never been at a loss for material. “We did a lot of barbershop and gospel. We have quite a varied repertoire of songs,” says Merrill. “We have 20 to 30 songs, which in itself is quite a feat for most barbershop quartets. But we have another 50 or 60 songs that we could do with just a little scrubbing up. That comes from being together over 50 years. You never lose it.”
Over the years, they say they’ve also had many costumes. Jean brings out a photo of the men in beige safari suits circa 1981, and they all laugh. “We tried to look hip,” says Merrill. “Styles morphed, but we never morphed.”
“Barbershop music is an acquired taste,” he states,” but if you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life. If the chords are correct, you’ll get good overtones and undertones. You don’t want an individual voice coming through.”
“It’s the blend, the harmony, that’s the key,” adds Glenn.
One of the group’s most memorable performances was Feb. 20, 1963, after auditioning for the Ken Soble Amateur Hour television program on CHCH (Hamilton). “They had a sort of amateur show at the Orono Fair, and the prize was an audition on Ken Soble’s Hour,” explains Don.
“We won the competition, and then we won the amateur hour,” continues Glenn. “Bill Laurence was the MC; we followed Tiny Talent Time. My youngest daughter was three at the time. She couldn’t understand how I could be on the TV and sitting there with her in the living-room at the same time.” The four men are laughing again.
“I still remember throwing our hats in the air when we won. Oh dear,” says Jack, shaking his head but smiling at their boyish enthusiasm. It is apparent that, even though those hats are now hung up for good, four close friends remain, young at heart, and in harmony. The singing, the talking, and the laughter continues.