[23 October 2003]
Growin’ a Beard is an unassuming little documentary that visits the small town of Shamrock, Texas during its annual beard-growing competition, following the efforts of Austin whippersnapper Scotty McAfee (only 34!) as he enters a contest in which men have grown beards and dyed them green for decades. The documentary’s short and to the point, as sure to bring a smile to your face as it is to make you ponder the fate of small-town America (a series of stills from the town’s 1939 parade and competition is especially poignant after you watch the film). Director Mike Woolf doesn’t use the people of Shamrock for cheap laughs, though; the beard competition is presented for what it is—a pleasant diversion for a town that’s seen far better days. The contestants take their beard-growing seriously, but there’s no sense that anyone’s obsessed with the outcome. Over the course of its thirty minutes, Growin’ a Beard quickly wins you over with its affectionate take on the town of Shamrock and the small way that it holds on to its more prosperous past.
In a coup of sorts, the film features original music by the Gourds. Under the guise of the Shamrockers (a great name), the Gourds converged on a studio called Tequila Mockingbird (another great name) and poured forth their unique brand of Americana while watching cuts of the film (Woolf fesses up that his editing of the final product was greatly influenced by the Gourds’ contributions, so the film and soundtrack enjoy rare sympathy with one another). The result is a rough-around-the-edges collection of tunes with one foot in the Irish green of Shamrock and the other in the dusty Texas landscape that surrounds the town. It’s only fair, though, to state up front that at least half of the disc consists of instrumental reprisals of the lyric-endowed songs, so the Growin’ a Beard soundtrack might be only for the most devout Gourds fans.
Things kick off with a happy Irish jig, “Lion’s Mane”, which doesn’t sound so much like the Chieftains as it does the Pogues, especially after the singer cuts loose with a banshee-like shriek. An ode to the Donegal, the only type of beard allowed in the Shamrock competition, “Lion’s Mane” features lyrics like “And sideburns are for wankers, and goatees are a shame / For me the mighty Donegal beard, for me the lion’s mane”. “Chief of the Fuzzers” is in the typical Gourds backwoods funk-folk vein, but the subject matter isn’t immediately apparent unless you’ve seen the documentary. Doesn’t stop it from being catchy, though. “Shamrock Bound” continues in the same vein as another ode to the Donegal beard (and you have to admit that, after you’ve seen the documentary, the beard does earn a certain amount of charm). “Hangman” is an old live staple of the band’s given new life here; a somewhat traditional reading of a doomed man’s pleas at the gallows, it finishes with an angry rant by the narrator after he receives no help—and even curses—from his family. In the film, it’s used during the climactic judging of the beards. Finally, there’s a fantastic (but oh too short) rendition of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”. When you hear it, you realize that this classic was as tailormade for the Gourds as “Gin n’ Juice” and they’ll hopefully revisit the song someday soon in a more extended fashion.
The rest of the disc consists of instrumental takes, or longer versions of the songs with lyrics. They’re all fine as far as they go, but they’re better suited as background music for the images in the movie. Here, despite their easygoing feel, they feel a bit like filler. That’s really the only conceivable complaint about the Growin’ a Beard soundtrack. Other than that, the Gourds have done a really nice job of scoring Growin’ a Beard, writing music that’s every bit as charming as the images they accompany.