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Can't keep these guys from singing

<i>Submitted photo</i> Talk of the Town, a longtime St. Croix Valley quartet, will entertain at the April 9 shows. Pictured, left to right, are Matt Hall of New Richmond, Judd Orff, Keith Fransen and Jim Hall of River Falls.

A chorus organized in 1951 by three River Falls men fond of barbershop harmony will celebrate its 60th anniversary Saturday with two concerts in Stillwater, Minn.

This week the guys on the stage shared a little secret: Croix Chordsmen members expect to enjoy the shows at least as much as their audiences.

It started in 1948 when three men from River Falls -- "Swede" Olson, Warren Richardson and John Linehan -- wanted to organize a barbershop group, said Mac Barlass, who manages PR for the Chordsmen.

With help from singers from Menomonie, the St. Croix Valley Chapter of the national Barbershop Harmony Society was formed.

Barbershop groups were the earliest recorded a cappella singers in America, said Barlass.

The St. Croix chorus, now 59 singers strong, includes 20 men from western Wisconsin. Eleven of those are River Falls residents.

"The chorus has kind of a family camaraderie complexion to it," said Barlass, explaining the why the Chordsmen have stayed together so long. "It seems like we kind of pull together."

"Some people bowl. Some people sing," said Chordsmen Director Matt Hall, New Richmond. "Once you discover, once you come to a rehearsal and discover the joy of singing, how much fun it can be, it kind of hooks you."

Singers, he said, can step away from the stress and responsibilities of everyday life, enjoy the camaraderie of others and simply enjoy singing.

"I've sung with five different choruses," said Barlass. "Once you get hooked on it, barbershop is very fulfilling for amateur singers."

"I couldn't stay away"

He did pull back from barbershoppers for six months once when work commitments made it too difficult to make the weekly meetings.

"But I couldn't stay away. I couldn't stay away," said Barlass. Besides, he added, the St. Croix Valley group has a special bond.

While members of other choruses may stop for fast food as they hurry home from a competition, the Chordsmen celebrate the experience.

After any district contest, the whole bunch, including family and friends, has dinner together, said Barlass.

He said it's work to find a site and make reservations for over 60 people at a restaurant, but the Chordsmen feel it's worth it.

"Whether we win, lose or draw, we all as a group bring our friends and go to dinner," said Barlass.

Those gatherings are so popular, he said, that members of competing choruses often join the Chordsmen.

"But they don't mooch off us. We make 'em pay," joshed Barlass.

By presenting the men's singing, the contests and shows also entertain family and friends, said Barlass.

And, he said, they answer a question common to many wives: "What's that turkey been doing every Tuesday night for umpteen weeks?"

The Chordsmen meet faithfully for two hours on Tuesday evenings, rarely skipping a practice.

"We do cancel for Christmas," admitted Barlass.

In the earliest years, the Chordsmen rehearsed in River Falls. In the late 1950s they moved to Hudson where their director, Harold Ulring, also directed the Hudson High School choirs.

They have met in schools, community centers, several churches and a VFW hall and currently practice at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stillwater.

While it's not for everyone, about half of the chorus singers also form quartets, often devoting another evening a week to that practice, said Barlass.

"Quartets have always been a big part of the St. Croix Valley chapter," agreed Don Paulson, the chapter historian. One of the earliest was the "Woodsman" -- Carl Finstad, Tom Lowe, David Poultan and Alan Stewart, all of River Falls -- who formed the quartet in 1955. Stewart still sings baritone with the Chordsmen.

Another quartet that became very popular, said Barlass, was the Talk of the Town.

Formed in 1973, the quartet won the Land O' Lakes District competition in 1976 and went on to represent the chapter in the International Contest six times.

Talk of the Town was made up of Keith Fransen and Judd Orff from Stillwater, Jim Hall from River Falls and Bob Brutsman from Minneapolis. "Talk" will sing on the 60th anniversary show with Matt Hall, filling in the bass part.

"In the family blood"

In the last 60 years, the Chordsmen have had seven different directors. Jim Hall is the director with the longest tenure. After 26 years at the lead, he turned the role over to his son, Matt, and now sings baritone with the chorus.

"It's kind of in the family blood," said Matt Hall, New Richmond, who works as a commercial loan officer at a bank in Hudson. "I'm a third generation barbershopper."

Matt sang with the chorus briefly while in high school and returned after college. He became co-director in 2000 and director in 2005.

With his father and grandfather both singing, Matt Hall heard a lot of barbershop in his youth.

"When you listen to it growing up, you kind of get hooked on it, I suppose," he said.

"This is obviously a hobby for all the guys that do it," said Hall. "Like any hobby they want to improve on it."

Just as a woodcarver wants each new piece to be better than the last, barbershoppers are willing to work at their craft to get better at it, said Hall.

"I really do enjoy it," he added. "It's a lot of fun, a unique style of singing, a challenging style of singing."

Barbershoppers focus on learning skills and techniques, said Barlass, who admits that in his first contest, his foursome finished dead last out of 29 quartets.

"Vocal production and acoustics are a constant challenge," said Barlass, adding that the barbershop program "makes a better singer of you than you thought you could be."

Still, said Barlass, singing is a hobby and individuals attend as much or as little as they choose.

"This is not a cult," he said. "You don't get punished for not participating."

The real frosting is outside performances such as the singing Valentine mini-concerts barbershoppers give around their communities, said Barlass. Those, he said, often draw emotional responses from their audiences.

"It's a blast," said Barlass. "It's a real high."

"Barbershop is nice to listen to, but more fun to sing," said Barlass, saying he expects he and the other men on the stage enjoy their concerts a little more than their audiences.


The St. Croix Valley Croix Chordsmen will present shows at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at Stillwater Area High School on the west edge of Stillwater, Minn.

Along with the chorus, there will be performances by four quartets:

  • The TNS Quartet from Nashville, Tenn. Show co-chairman Tyler Smith described the quartet, which took 10th place last year at the International Barbershop Quartet Finals in Philadelphia, as "one of the best in the country."
  • Autumn Serenade, whose members are led by Curt Larson of River Falls, baritone Mark Bergland of River Falls, tenor Roger Bosmoe of Stillwater, Minn., and bass Duane Hall of Afton, Minn.
  • Grand Design, a new quartet from Minnesota. The group was named the top quartet in the Southwest Division contest in Mankato, Minn., earlier this year.
  • Turning Point, a quartet of Minnesota men, including longtime Chordsman Judd Orff, Charlie McKowan, Jim Johnson and Lance Johnson.

    Show tickets can be purchased for $15 at the door or for $10 in advance by calling 651-308-5775.

For more information about the Chordsmen, go to the website: .

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.