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"Happy trills for Illinois yodeler"

By Patrick Kampert
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 28, 2004

CLINTON, Ill. -- You probably haven't heard of Springfield resident Randy Erwin, but at least a couple of the Disney Co.'s hopes for a rebound hang on his very flexible vocal cords.

As a hired hand in the recording studio, he provides the distinctive yodeling that enables villain Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) to hypnotize and steal cattle in the animated movie "Home on the Range," which opens Friday.

The recording sessions actually took place a couple of years ago. Today, the native Texan is back at his real job as a children's entertainer. On this day, he has a more restless audience than cattle to enchant with his yodels, cowboy songs and rope tricks: a kid-heavy crowd of 153 at the Warner Library here in central Illinois.

The yodeling came to him naturally as he grew up "singing all day long" on his parents' rice farm in the verdant coastal plains between Houston and Corpus Christi. His ease with young audiences seems equally laid-back, perhaps due to sons Milo, 10, and Evan, 3.

"Do I look OK?" he asks a girl seated on the floor as he adjusts the microphone. She nods her approval of his western shirt and cowboy hat.

"I heard somebody humming the D," he notes a moment later, smiling as he tunes his guitar. By the end of his 45-minute show, he will have the children mooing like cows, howling like coyotes and standing inside twirling lassos.

He'll sing a song about buckaroos in Spanish, explain Newton's First Law of Motion with a rope trick and relate that Erwin is his stage name because nobody can pronounce his real last name, Skalicky.

The show seems breezy, yet it is carefully planned. Erwin says he's "obsessive," and that is the same quality that helped him win over the Disney crew, including Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken.

The producers had tried out every yodeler under the sun, but the music called for more than simple yodeling.

"There's real stylized cowboy stuff. Some of it is operatic-sounding. Some of it's just strange, high falsetto, counter-tenor singing," Erwin explains.

Erwin was recommended by an agent in Austin, Texas, whose client had failed to get the gig. Erwin impressed the Mouse people at the audition, then meticulously went over the main song, a four-minute yodeling opus, note by note on his Apple computer at home. When the tape rolled weeks later at the Disney studio in Burbank, Calif., he was ready.

"It was like I had my quilt already made," he said. "All I had to do was throw it out there."

He nailed it, as they say. "He came in and kicked butt," said Menken, who hopes the movie will boost Erwin's career. "No one deserves it more. He's a very nice guy and very talented."

"I was revved up real high," Erwin admitted. "When we got to the end, Alan and the producers jumped out of their chairs and started dancing around and clapping. I knew my whole life had flipped right then."

The heady moment capped years of struggle as Erwin took his western tunes and rope demonstrations to open mikes and comedy clubs around Texas in the '80s. He then spent seven years as the lead singer and accordion player in Cafe Noir, a gypsy jazz band in the mode of Django Reinhardt.

The gigs were interesting, he says, including a stop at Carnegie Hall's recital space, but paid little as he supplemented wife Dusty's income as a staff writer for alternative newspapers.

When the band folded in '97, he modified his cowboy act for young audiences and put together a CD with his friends in the critically acclaimed rock band Brave Combo.

For the last seven years, he has been "Cowboy Randy" at libraries, birthday parties, church picnics and schools. He moved to Springfield in 2002 when Dusty got a job there. The kids, he said, have sharpened his act.

"They're really rough," he said. "So my show had to get a lot better in order for me to survive. You have to think on your feet, because they'll come up with something off the wall. You never know what they're gonna do."

The "Home on the Range" connection has helped Erwin line up dates at more than 70 Illinois libraries this summer. It may not put him in the Rolling Stones' league and it may not last, but Erwin says he's content.

"It's a good job," he said. "After this Disney stuff is done, I'll immediately go back to the bread-and-butter circuit of kids' gigs. I'm pretty lucky actually."


Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune - Chicago Tribune


"Yodeling for Disney"

By NICK ROGERS
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT WRITER

In Disney's animated film "Home on the Range," Alameda Slim is a self-described pioneer Pied Piper in 10-gallon underpants who speaks with the dusty, dusky voice of actor Randy Quaid.

But the sound of Slim's yodeling, which the evil land-grabber uses to steal cattle away from their ranches, fell to a different Randy.

Randy Erwin, who moved with his family to Springfield about a year and a half ago, has been a professional yodeler for more than 20 years. And his work in "Home on the Range" won't be confined to the song "Yodle-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo" and the incidental off-screen yodel.

"There'll be the soundtrack, the sing-along-karaoke, read-along CDs," Erwin says. "All that they can come up with."

And Erwin's yodeling will go global as the film premieres worldwide throughout the year. Because he spoke no English in the film, he was allowed to re-record for the film's 32 different foreign releases, unlike other featured vocal talent such as Quaid, Judi Dench and Cuba Gooding Jr.

"It's almost never done, but I guess they tried to find other people in other countries and they couldn't match it up," says the 46-year-old of his yodeling. "When your adrenaline's going, it's real easy to redo 32 takes. It's the benefit of speaking gibberish."

In 1980, Erwin graduated with a radio, television and film degree from the University of Texas at Austin, with a specialization in music and effects for radio and film. He worked at a radio station and TV station there for a couple of years before deciding it wasn't for him.

A Texas native, Erwin often heard yodeling recordings when growing up in the state's Gulf Coast area, but didn't sing much until he was in his 20s.

"It wasn't until then that my voice had matured into a yodeling voice," he says.

Moving to Dallas to yodel professionally, Erwin played business conventions for several years before joining Cafe Noir, "a classical gypsy" band that sang songs inspired by Django Reinhardt.

Erwin recorded two solo CDs, as well as two with Cafe Noir, and also had a cameo in "True Stories," the 1986 film directed by Talking Heads front man David Byrne. He also lent his voice to several television commercials, including Home Depot ads. For the past seven years, he has performed shows for children as Cowboy Randy, combining his yodeling with trick roping at libraries, schools and parties in Texas and Illinois.

He got wind of the "Home on the Range" job through an Austin agent who recommended him to the film's producers. They flew him to Los Angeles to record a demo at Disney's animation division. A few weeks later, he was hired for the job.

"They really needed the right kind of voice to match Randy Quaid's," Erwin says. "He was born in Houston, and I was born about 80 miles south."

Over the course of four recording sessions, Erwin got his tracks finalized. The most memorable moment came early, when he went straight through "Yodle-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo" in one take, with its Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken on hand.

"Right in the middle, I could see through the glass, and Alan starts doing this jig," Erwin says. "Everybody's clapping and jumping up and down. At that moment, my life had just kind of flipped around from being a bottom-feeder to being one step above a bottom-feeder." (This moment is part of behind-the-scenes footage from the film, which can be viewed through Erwin's Web site at http://web2.iadfw.net/a0027072/gettingthere.html.)

Erwin laughs a bit, calling Disney's "pay better than scale."

"Since it's a real specialty thing, they were kind," Erwin says. "They gave me a premium price to do it. And the residuals will be nice when the DVDs come out. I'm kind of at the top of the food chain."

He says taking his family to the film's premiere in L.A. was probably the best thing he's ever been able to do with them.

"When Disney throws a party, it's 100 percent the best thing you've ever seen," says Erwin, who got to walk down the red carpet in front of the El Capitan Theatre along with Gooding Jr. and actress Estelle Harris.

It has been said that "Home on the Range" will be Disney's final hand-drawn animated film. If that's true, Disney will end its animation run as it came in, with a midmovie round of yodeling.

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (Disney's first full-length animated feature) had yodeling right in the middle of it, too," says Erwin. "It's kind of odd that things would turn out that way."

And even if Disney doesn't require Erwin's yodeling services, he's confident it will be a good calling card.

"I'm not sure how much demand there is in Hollywood," he says. "But if they need more yodeling, here I am." - Springfield State Journal Register


"some quotes pulled from years of press clippings"

"His tone is pure and clear and his voice is unpretentious but endearing, whether singing or yodeling."
Bob Claypool - Houston Post

"Sliding into his upper registers, he turns vocal toe loops with dizzying clarity, precision and speed."
Holly Gleason - Musician Magazine

"Erwin has a clear and facile voice that's really quite amazing..."
Barry Tarlton - Austin Chronicle

"What's intriguing about Erwin is his ability to fluidly slide his country croon through a plethora of local and non-local musical hybrids."
Cathy Ragland - Option Magazine

"...one of the most distinctive voices being recorded today."
Matt Weitz - The Dallas Morning News

"Erwin has a wonderful virtuostic technique..."
Bart Becker - Seattle Weekly

"...that wild voice, sounding like a combination of Tarzan, a trickling brook and Comanche war yelp, will knock your socks off."
Cammy Blackstone, San Francisco Weekly

"...singing and yodeling with all the smoothness of a stretch of open road at dawn."
Cliff Radel - Cincinnati Enquirer

"It's difficult to fully describe how unlikely an experience listening to Randy Erwin's seamlessly yodeled renditions of faded-made-fresh melodies is, how unlikely an experience Randy Erwin is, and how unlikely is the depth and resonance of satisfaction yielded by that experience."
Tom Maurstad - Dallas Observer

"We're smitten."
CMJ Music Report - various


Discography

four out of print CD's full of cowboy yodeling for god's sake

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see my website, be amazed, and confused, and ultimately irritated beyond belief