The Barber of Sevier


A tribute to the man who reminded me that we’re all just people doing our best—and the one who’s kept me looking fresh for decades

Conley Sims, born in 1908, opened a barber shop on Bruce Street in downtown Sevierville almost 100 years ago. When a shave and a haircut cost only “two bits,” my father and, later, his four sons became regular customers. Because Mr. Sims became so proficient in his craft, taking an average of only three minutes for a regular cut, Sims’ Barber Shop as a business enjoyed relative prosperity – even during the Great Depression. Conley’s son, Johnny, graduated from high school in 1959 and chose to follow in his father’s footsteps. After a stint at Tri-Cities Barber School in Knoxville and the grant of state licensure, Johnny, at age 19, took the second chair in the shop founded by his father. By then, a “regular” haircut cost 75 cents, but the more popular “flattop” in those days priced at $1. No appointment necessary, first come, first serve. Wait your turn. Open on Saturday.

Impressed by the modern techniques of the new man in the shop and often a bit troubled by what he perceived as Conley’s rushed cuts, my father switched loyalties from the father to the son. So, from 1959 until his death in 2008 at the age of 101, excepting only a few occasions when another “clipped his ears,” no one other than Johnny Sims cut the hair of Dwight Wade, Sr. Other than the seven years I spent at the University of Tennessee, the same can be said for yours truly.

For all their years together, Conley and Johnny Sims opened their shop at 4:30 a.m. and stayed on the job until their last customer had been sheared of his excess hair. Even at age 85 and until his death in 1994, Conley would come in for an hour or two each day to serve any of the waiting customers in a hurry to leave. Those who were more concerned with their appearance waited for Johnny, who has always been quite serious about the quality of his work.

Since his father’s death, Johnny–never John–has carried on the tradition of Sevierville’s oldest continuing business. He still opens at 4:30 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. He closes on Wednesday and, of course, Sunday, and rarely misses a home football game of our Vol heroes. He has watched many of his longtime customers first “turn gray and then turn loose.” The conversation in his shop is light, usually spiced with good humor and often laced with a critique of the Lady Vols and the Tennessee football and men’s basketball teams. His walls are adorned with photos and advertisements of our local politicians, almost all of whom know to pay their respects to Sevier County’s longest serving barber.

With that background, I can begin to get to the point of this tale, but first a Howard Baker story. When our United States senator-to-be was a young lawyer practicing his trade in tiny Huntsville in Scott County, one of the old-timers in the community burst into his office late one morning with a complaint. The man explained that he had tried to represent himself in a trial before a justice of the peace and had lost. Livid with his experience, he told Howard that he needed a lawyer to appeal to a higher court. When Howard asked what had happened, the old farmer, vexed by his unfortunate encounter, shouted, “They swore lies on me…and proved some of them!”

In that vein, what I write may not be entirely accurate, but I have told my Johnny Sims story so often that some of it must be true. So, here it is. Let’s go back to 2012, the year I was to begin to serve a two-year term as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. As a hometown boy, I chose to be sworn in at the Sevier County Courthouse in Sevierville at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 1. Two days earlier, an edition of the Mountain Press, our local equivalent of the New York Times, had a front-page, above-the fold column announcing that I, being the first ever from the county to serve on the state supreme court, would be sworn in as Tennessee’s 29th Chief Justice. A pretty big deal in these parts, I thought. Local boy done good.

I needed a haircut for the festivities and, of course, went to Sims’ Barber Shop, which is located less than a block from the courthouse. As I waited for my turn in his chair, I noticed that Johnny had the edition of our local paper prominently situated atop his various reading materials. So, I fully expected him to mention my good fortune when I took my seat in his barber chair. After five or ten minutes passed, he had made no mention of the news story. Perplexed, I finally asked, “Johnny, did you see the Mountain Press story?”

“Yes,” he answered, “I read it when I got to work this morning.” Again, he made no mention of the Saturday event.

“Did you see that I’m going to be sworn in as chief justice tomorrow at our courthouse? It’s the state top judicial office!”

“Sure,” he answered with a smile. “Me and one of my customers was laughing about that just yesterday!”

Dissatisfied with his apparent lack of enthusiasm for my promotion, I pressed on. “It’s at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning at the courthouse,” I explained. “You know, you have seen me grow up here in town and cutting my hair all these years, any chance you might be able to attend? It’s outside and open to the public.”

Unimpressed, as he continued to work on me with his clippers, “Probably not,” he deadpanned. “Saturday is always a busy day for me at the shop.”

Sure enough, Johnny did not come, but he had unknowingly provided me with all the speech material I needed. On my big day, I took the microphone and began my remarks with the conversation I had with my barber the morning before. I saw a lot of smiles and heard chuckles all around.

For almost 30 years, I traveled the state to hold court, mostly in Knoxville, Nashville, and Jackson, but other smaller towns as well. Lawyers, staff, and courtroom onlookers were always overly courteous to me as a judge – out of respect for the office and not necessarily for the man in the black robe. “All rise” — from the court officer are always the opening words when I or any of my colleagues in the profession take the bench. In or out of court and wherever we are, each judge is always being addressed as “your honor” – pretty cool, huh? I must plead guilty to having had an unwarranted feeling of self-importance from time to time. So, thanks, Johnny, for reminding me that I am just one of the guys here at home. Great preparation for retirement!

As a postscript, when called upon to speak during my time as chief justice, I almost always got a laugh when I told a version of the Johnny Sims story. Afterward, some in the audience would inevitably ask about Johnny and whether, after over 60 years in the business, he was still cutting hair. “Yes,” I always answered, “He is still going strong and is more and more a local celebrity.”

By the way, Johnny, easily the most popular barber in Sevier County, has doubled his price for a haircut in the last few years — and never offered me a discount or a marketing fee. With apologies for the title to Pierre Beaumarchais, the author of the 1775 French comedy The Barber of Seville, and Rossini’s 1816 opera featuring Figaro the barber, Johnny Sims is The Barber of Sevier.

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