Yodeler selected for Grand Canyon artist in residence program

Dan Naumovich

In terms of geography, yodeling calls to mind the Swiss Alps or the West Texas plains — although it might sound pretty cool echoing around the recesses of the Grand Canyon.

Randy Erwin is finding out.

Erwin, of Springfield, is a professional yodeler and singer whose talents have taken him across the globe and onto the silver screen. And last week, it took him to the Grand Canyon, where he has been selected as Artist-in-Residence (AiR) for a three-week period on the national park’s South Rim.

“It’s kind of like a retreat. You get three solid weeks of doing nothing but your work,” Erwin said.

When the Illinois Arts Council e-mailed its members notifying them of the opportunity, Erwin applied, and a committee selected him. He’s the just the second artist who will participate in the new year-round program (there’s been an artist-in-residence program on the park’s North Rim for six years).

Rene Westbrook, the coordinator of the South Rim AiR, said the program differs from the 41 others offered in the national park system because it is open to more contemporary art forms, and it encourages artists to use their work to advocate for issues such as conservation and the environment. Traditional artists are also welcome, but she said Erwin is in a category of his own.

“You should have seen the jury panel light up when we watched Randy’s DVD and listened to his CD,” Westbrook said. “Not only does his cowboy yodeling fit into the program historically speaking, but it’s also something really new to the program, and I’m anticipating that we’ll have great fun during his performance here.”

The park is providing Erwin an apartment above an old trading post that sits right off the rim. He’s responsible for his own meals, but he’s comfortable with his cooking abilities. The rest of the time will be devoted to music.

Erwin plans to write songs and vocal arrangements — using his falsetto yodeling style, but mostly standard vocalizing — that are inspired by the natural environment in which he’s living for the next few weeks. He’ll be packing a couple of USB microphones and a netbook computer to record tracks on site.

“What I plan on doing is recording in the canyon and then mixing them into an hour-long piece that will be nothing but vocals,” he said. “I’ll be going from the rim down as far as I can physically hike. I’ll try to make it down as far as the river.”

Although Erwin doesn’t know exactly what to expect, he’s excited about working with the canyon’s acoustics and its natural sounds.

“I plan on getting all of the ambient sound as well — that includes rock falls and animals and water sounds and wind. And people are just as much a part of the atmosphere, so I’ll probably get snippets of people laughing and talking,” he said.

At some point in the year after his residency is complete, Erwin will be required to give a presentation on his experience. He plans to take video and photographs during his stay to accompany the audio tracks that he hopes to have mixed and mastered by the end of the year.

Erwin is a Texas native who developed a love of classical music while working on the family rice farm. He later gravitated toward country-western before discovering his gift for yodeling.

His talent performing the under-attended craft landed him roles in two movies. He played himself in David Byrne’s “True Stories” and provided the yodeling voice for the character Alameda Slim in Disney’s “Home on the Range.”

Along the way, Erwin’s unique talent has taken him to Australia, Japan and Great Britain, where he performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall and Wembley Arena. After a few years spent in Alaska and touring Canada and the Pacific Northwest, he returned to Texas before finding his way to Springfield.

“I moved up here seven or eight years ago. I can get to Chicago or St. Louis or Indy or Kansas City in just a few hours. It’s just an easy crossroads,” he said

As Cowboy Randy, Erwin plays about 120 shows a year at schools, libraries and festivals throughout the Midwest. His act is geared toward children and includes songs from the Old West and rope tricks.

Erwin’s day job is at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where he’s one of the actors who performs in the daily “Ghosts of the Library” shows.

“Randy is one of the handful of actors who has been with us since the very beginning,” said Phil Funkenbusch, ALPLM program director, “I’m glad he has the chance to take this Grand Canyon gig. He’s not only a good, steady and loyal performer here, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”

Dan Naumovich is a freelance writer and business copywriter. He can be reached