There was a time just a few years ago when Randy Erwin, once a young yodeling Texan outfitted in retro-cowboywear a handful of decades after the heydays of Bob Wills and Hank Williams, was considered something of a novelty. Folks around here eyed Erwin (born Skalicy, of Czech and Polish and Irish and Native American heritage) with wide-eyed suspicion, unsure of whether this South Texas-born boy was putting them on by performing old Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry songs.
As they chuckled at his appearance and tried to discern whether he was joking or sincere, they marveled at his range--the way his voice slood around a word, the way he could bend a lyric the way crystal bends light, crawling inside the music till he sounded almost as inhuman as an instrument. In these very pages, Tom Maurstad wrote in 1987, when reviewing Erwin's first EP Til the Cows Come Home, that "there's a comical nostalgia in the singer's outfitting and song selection," while also noting that Erwin's "sinuous singing and the players' folk craftsmanship transcend mere novelty."
Erwin released that EP on Brave Combo's Four Dots label, with Carl Finch serving as producer and Jeffrey Barnes on clarinet in an inspired cameo. Featuring covers of such yodeling standards as Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas," Roy Rogers' "She's All Wet Now," and the Eddy Arnold classic "Cattle Call" among a playlist that also showcases the near-goof "My Sweetheart's in Love with a Swiss Mountaineer," the record provided the yodel virgin with a perfect entry. It's beautiful, breathtaking, and good fun all at once--proof you can't parody what you don't love dearly, if any facet of it was parody at all.
But as Erwin recalls Finch telling him at the time, the album was meant only to be a document of where he was at that moment--there to help him get gigs, but only a starting point for something much larger. By the time it was released, Erwin had already begun moving away from cowboy yodeling and had begun exploring the Western swing of Bob Wills and the blues of Jimmie Rodgers, fusing them with a broader global palette of sound. The result was 1988's Cowboy Rhythm, which split its content between stripped-down tradition (featuring Cafe Noir's violinist Gale Hess) and a big-band (that is, Brave Combo) styled romp through the sounds of South Texas and Bavaria. In 1989, ROM Records combined both releases on the eponymous Randy Erwin CD, followed by the CD Back Home.
The albums garnered him a "medium cult thing," as Erwin describes it. "And that's OK," he insists. "I got some records out, and I got a steady day job. I don't have anything to worry about, I guess. Mozart was dead by the time he was my age, and Jimmie Rodgers was dead by the time he was my age, so I guess it could be worse."
Erwin's most remarkable workthe one that would foretell of his future work with Cafe Noir, which he would permanently join in the fall of 1990--would never be released. In 1989, with some money made from recording a jingle for Frito-Lay, Erwin recorded 10 new songs and planned to have ROM release it as a CD. But the label folded ("as all independents are wont to do," Erwin shrugs) and he pocketed the cassette and figured he might release it at a later date or maybe sell it at gigs. But because Cafe Noir took up so much of his time, recording two albums (the band's third, The Waltz King, is due from Carpe Diem Records at the end of the month), Erwin stopped performing solo, and so the DAT sat in a drawer, untouched, for five years--until now.
Recently, Erwin decided to begin performing solo once again in between Cafe Noir performances and tours; he will make his comeback, as it were, January 15 at Barnes and Noble on Preston, followed by another gig next month at Border's Books and Music in Preston Royal. Erwin, in fact, cannot recall the last time he performed alone, dating such performances to his days spent in Alaska playing Anchorage coffeehouses and appearing on Tom Bodett's nationally syndicated radio show and at the Eskimo Olympics.
"I wanted to perform solo again just to get into coffeehouses again, really," Erwin says. "When I came back down here there weren't any coffeehouses, and I wanted to get back in them. People aren't drunk and throwing shit around, they aren't screaming at the top of their lungs. It's nice and close. It's just real sweet. It reminds me of Alaska. I wake up in the morning expecting to see mountains, and they're never there, so I'm going to go back to them in a way."
Erwin had 50 cassettes duped at Crystal Clear Studios and will sell them at gigs without a sleeve, a listing of song titles, or any artwork, instead signing his name to the bare plastic; he will then manufacture as many more as are called for, figuring, "If I make any profit, I'll get 50 more, then I'll have to make 10,000 more trips, and I'll have a gold record."
The cassette links his yodeling cowboy past with the internationally diverse work that followed with Cafe Noir. Featuring a mixture of originals (including "The Orange King," "The Long Slow Slide," and "The Battle of the Five and Dime"--all of were recut for Cafe Noir's 1993 Windows to the Sea), country classics (Gene Autry's "I'll Go Ridin' Down that Texas Trail"), and other compositions originally written in Greek and Romanian, it's a remarkable collection--coherent perhaps not in selection, but in execution.
Assisted by Cafe Noir's Gale Hess (violin an clarinet) and Norbert Gerl (on viola)--both of whom helped arrange the material for the tape--and Beledi Ensemble's Jamal Mohammed on percussion, guitarist-synthesizer player Gianpierro Scuderi, and bassist Mike Pope, Erwin here is no longer just a yodeling throwback (if, indeed, it's not enough to be just such a thing). Rather, he's an extraordinary singer, not unlike Mandy Patinkin during his more restrained moments--able to scrape the highest notes without breaking, then able to dip to wrenching lows. Erwin's is a voice that belongs on a stage in a cavernous hall, where it's given plenty of room to float and explode and surround the listener.
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When Erwin sings "Tut I Tschi, Man I Tschi" (which first appeared, sans vocals, on Cafe Noir's eponymous debut in 1988), he doesn't even sound like himself; he imbues the Gypsy lyrics with a heartbreaking poignancy intelligible even when the words are not. And behind him, the band plays in a low, mournful tone, Hess' clarinet moaning the melody as Scuderi picks out delicate notes in rapid-fire succession.
The versions of the "The Orange King," "The Long Slow Slide," and "The Battle of the Five and Dime" recall the versions that would appear later--they are perhaps a bit slower, a bit more bluesy--and "I'll Go Ridin' Down that Texas Trail" blends Western swing with a Gypsy beat. But "Padam, padam" (made famous by Edith Piaf) is perhaps the cassette's highlighta bizarre piece of French-and-English-language dance exotica, not so unlike something Bryan Ferry might attempt in a less smarmy mood.
"When I did the cowboy thing, basically I got it all out of my system," Erwin says of his ever-expanding repertoire--keeping in mind this material is already more than five years old, though it sounds as fresh as tomorrow. "I explored a lot of that stuff, then I got into Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, which was more Western swing. And then it was just natural to go into Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole, that direction. I've been listening to almost nothing but Sinatra for a year. I bought the Capitol boxed set, and that's really affected my phrasing.
"And moving into 'Padam, padam' and 'Tut I Tschi' and the stuff with Cafe Noir, it's kinda like when Miles Davis said by the time he got his record out, he had gone on to something else. It's just probably not a good way to be if you want to make a lot of money.