Harlan County Barber celebrates a 51-year career

By Eric Eckstrom | 

It’s a path that begins with students, a collection of individuals with a desire to learn a new skill. Over time, those with determination and talent become professionals, skilled and precise. And in rare cases, something happens that defies explanation or method: the professional transforms into an artist.

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“Well, I’ve done it so long, it's like shaving around people's ears i don't even think about it. It’s just natural,” said Neil Barnes.

To define this quality is something words struggle to capture, but you know it when you see it.

“It just feels like a part of your hand, your clippers, your scissors and everything,” he said.

Neil was in his mid-twenties when he cut his first head of hair; he charged one dollar. Flash forward 51 years, he has legions of loyal clients.

“He’s the best, he's the best I know in Harlan,” said David Wacks.

“The first time I sat in that chair i didn't even have to tell neil how to cut my hair it’s like he already knew,” said Kenneth Hill.

Beneath his talents exists a profound love for his community, one he has seen dwindle in numbers since childhood. He had offers to relocate, but he never considered leaving.

“I’ve always wanted to stay right here in Harlan county. When I got out of barber school I had a chance to go to Atlanta Georgia but I said no,” Barnes said.

Today at 75-years-old, health problems force Neil to suffer for his art, but slowing down or retiring is out of the question.

“I’ve got two bolted disks in my back, I have back problems, I’m getting arthritis in my hands, but that's what keeps me going is working. If i were to sit down I wouldn't be able to go much longer I don't think,” he said.

Perhaps one quality Neil teaches us about the nature of artists is the inseparable relationship they have with their art form. Like kindred spirits wrapped in animate and inanimate forms to become one complete form - and this one is named Neil Barnes.

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