The northern part of Texas, bordered by Oklahoma to the north and east, and New Mexico to the west, is known as the state’s “Panhandle.” It’s a flat, windswept, barren expanse of land that is every bit as exciting as its mundane nickname suggests. According to the documentary Growin’ a Beard, however, the pace picks up on St. Patrick’s Day.
Since 1938, each March 17th in Shamrock, Texas (population 2,029) has been the home of the St. Patrick’s Day Festival and, more importantly, the Donegal beard-growing contest. The Donegal is a rare cut of beard that borders the jawline and runs back up into the sideburns. No mustache. No neck whiskers. Think Lincoln or Amish. Think Leprechauns.
From New Year’s Day to St. Paddy’s, contestants-to-be grow their best Donegals and have them judged on the day of the parade. The festivities are presided over by the “Chief Fuzzer,” the head beard man in charge, who is allowed to throw any clean-shaven man into a makeshift jail if he’s caught without a special permit excusing him from sporting whiskers.
Mike Woolf’s documentary seems to celebrate along with the locals. The DVD release is accompanied by a copy of the shaving permit, a twenty-four page booklet of factoids related to the film — and beards in general, as well as a second disc devoted entirely to the soundtrack. The score is provided by The Gourds, an Austin-based roots band perhaps best known for their bluegrass take of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.”
Against the band’s eclectic twanging, the film follows four locals and one outsider from Austin, as they cultivate their facial hair in anticipation of the big day. Roy Wardlow already has a nail on his wall where he hopes to hang his first place plaque. Richard Smith has won every contest he’s ever entered, though he only enters every 10 years. Mark Simpson, last year’s winner, suffers through the itchiness in hopes of a repeat. And Bill Howe, the most Leprechaunian of the lot, ingests special pills to color his facial hair green.
The four speculate hopefully about their chances in the contest with thick Southern drawls and cheerful demeanors. Their jocularity almost helps us forget the film’s opening scenes, in which the old (and far better) days of Shamrock roll by in old black and white footage. The town was once a way station for travelers of the famous Route 66, but the rise of the Interstates has diverted the traffic, and corresponding economic prosperity, far away from Shamrock. What’s left is a tiny, struggling town that annually manages to shrug off the hard times, at least for a day.
Still, there’s something disquieting about the intrusion of an urban (director Woolf is from Austin) observer documenting the comparatively unsophisticated idiosyncrasies of the local gentry. It’s not entirely clear if we’re meant to laugh with the residents of Shamrock, or at them. Clearly they all have a good sense of humor about their contest, and none of them takes it too seriously (with the possible exception of the obsessive Roy Wardlow). Still, the parade and contest seem like more than a goofy put-on for outsiders. Shamrock may be modest, but the Donegal stand-off allows the town to come together in a way that must be beneficial for the dwindling community.
This disparity between local and outsider only heightens when another Austinite, Scotty McAfee, throws his prodigious whiskers into the ring to become the dark horse vying for a shot at the prize. McAfee’s whiskers are thick and plentiful, and, in the final, climatic assessment on St. Patrick’s Day, his beard carries the day. Former champ Richard Smith is knocked down to second place and Roy Wardlow must hang a third place plaque on that nail he’s put up.
The contest, of course, is all in good fun — as is, ostensibly, the documentary — but the party-crashing tourists take something away from the spirit of the day, visiting to take pictures and prizes before returning back to their more privileged environs. The difference between the local attitude toward the beard contest and the outsiders’ views is the difference between amusement and bemusement. We can’t help but feel a little sorry for folks like Roy Wardlow, who, after losing the contest, will sit around Shamrock for another year awaiting another contest. (The film is kind enough to let us know, however, that Roy did get his first place plaque two years later).
Growin’ a Beard, then, invites us to laugh, but not necessarily to think. Granted, a beard contest may not be the most thought provoking topic, but for the Shamrocks of the country, these events are more than just quizzical sideshows for the rest of us. As the local contestants stroke their beards, their satisfied smiles are genuine. In the middle of a desolate landscape, they’re growing their own happiness.