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Yodel Role Models

Corral Singing: Acclaimed Western music trio and comedy act Riders in the Sky will share the art of the yodel, as well as the mic, during two Thursday evening shows at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.

Riders in the Sky keep a singing cowboy tradition alive

By Michael Vaughn

The bronco went up and the cowpoke came down
They met at the old saddlehorn
It made a deep impression, you could say it changed his life
And that's how the yodel was born

Though the three amigos of Riders in the Sky poke fun at the Western yodel in their song "That's How the Yodel Was Born," they follow up with an impressive demonstration of the yodel's musical and entertainment possibilities. With Woody Paul blazing away on fiddle and Too Slim plugging away on bass, Ranger Doug starts out with a classic alpine yodeling pattern, doubles up the tempo to tongue-torching rapidity and adds a little Western swing, then shoots up to the top of his falsetto and holds out a note for seeming hours while Woody plays classic fiddle motifs below him (the Popeye theme, an Irish jig, an excerpt from Mozart). Finally, after taking a well-deserved "Shew!" for breath, the Idol of America's Youth closes it out by settling back down to a classic cowboy finish, climbing it back up the staircase to that same high note while Woody and Slim cut off below him.

In 18 years of performing (3,000 performances--including Thursday's Kuumbwa shows--a network children's show, 12 years at the Grand Ole Opry and a long-running radio show), you can bet Ranger Doug has had his share of thrills, but don't think that's a stage smile on his face when he yodels. The Ranger gets as much of a thrill out of riding the falsetto range as his audience does in listening to him. Speaking from his home in Nashville during a rare break in the Riders' nonstop touring schedule, he describes the effect.

"I found out very early in this career that nothing makes people happier than if you stand on stage and yodel," Ranger Doug says. "I don't know what it is. People light up! They love it. They applaud, they smile. If you do eight yodeling songs in a row, you're gonna lose 'em, but it's just the most wonderful thing for making you feel good in a short period of time. And I can't really explain it, but people just react to it. It's almost electric."

Ranger Doug's own moment of revelation came in Nashville in the late '60s. He had always been able to sing well in falsetto and was just beginning to develop his yodeling chops, when he was approached by a fellow aficionado. "A guy said, 'You know, you're a pretty good yodeler--you ought to hear this. I have something to play for you.' And he pulled out a copy of Elton Britt's Maybe I'll Cry Over You, and suddenly, it was like a whole new world opened to me. I said, wait a minute, this isn't just 'yodelay-he-hoo,' there's a lot more to it than that. And so I got a copy of that record and proceeded to try to memorize everything on it."

The Ranger studied a lot of cowboy music besides Elton Britt, and in the late '70s hooked up with two like-minded souls--Woody Paul and Too Slim--to form Riders in the Sky. The Riders, who boast two master's degrees and a doctorate in physics between them ("the most needlessly educated guys in America," Doug says), perform immaculate renditions of cowboy classics like "Back in the Saddle Again" and "The Streets of Laredo," mixing them in with comedy skits and banter reminiscent of the Kingston Trio.

Birth of the Yodel

As with most of the Riders' material, the yodel's place in Western music came by way of the Nashville recording studio and the Hollywood film set, and had very little to do with the 19th-century pioneers who settled the American West. "How it got to Jimmie Rodgers is the real question," says the Ranger. "Jimmie Rodgers, as you may know, is the great Mississippi blues yodeler considered the father of country music. Folklore has it that he heard a troupe of Swiss yodelers, took the old ballads and added this weird little yodeling blues refrain to them. How he figured that out, I don't know."

From Rodgers, the yodeling tradition was taken up by a talented second generation, including Ernest Tubbs, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones and Hank Snow, and then by a new group of singers--Roy Rogers, Ray Whitley, Gene Autry and Elton Britt--who took it up another notch. "Roy Rogers says that he was the first," Doug says, "and I really have no reason to doubt him. Nothing in my research shows anybody but Roy Rogers doing really tricky things with yodeling, right away, when he was still with the Sons of the Pioneers. And that was one of the hallmarks of the Pioneers, not only their three-part harmony yodeling, but Roy's fancy yodeling."

Ranger Doug describes the current world of Western yodeling as being divided between the schools of the two respective masters: Elton Britt and Canadian yodeler Montana Slim. "Elton Britt used the back of his throat more, and Montana Slim used the front more," Doug says. "Britt's stuff is a little more bluesy, and Montana Slim's a little more Alpine-sounding. He used his tongue a lot more--he wasn't quite as crisp as Elton Britt."

The foremost living proponents of the two styles, says Doug, are Gary McMahon on the Montana Slim side and David Bradley ("probably the best yodeler in the country") on the Elton Britt side. The Ranger is still firmly in the Britt camp and describes Britt's Yodel Song album, originally on RCA but more recently reissued on Stetson, as "the cornerstone of everything I do."

Exaggerating the Snap

So what exactly is yodeling? The basis of yodeling is not only to make frequent flips between the chest voice and head voice, but to actually accentuate the break in between, a concept that goes against everything you'll learn in formal vocal training. "Everything in trained singing teaches you to avoid that snap, that break," Doug says, "and just to go smoothly from your chest voice to your head voice without ever hearing any kind of change. Yodeling does just the opposite--it emphasizes and, indeed, exaggerates it."

Ranger Doug advises beginning yodelers to develop their skill the same way he did: Get an album by one of the greats and imitate what you hear. He also advises doing this "in a truck, with the windows rolled up. If you try to do it at home," he says, "you will alienate friends and family, neighbors and even pets. Maybe local wildlife. My kids both took trumpet, and you can imagine how horrible that was, in the beginning. That's what yodeling's like."

Once you have the basics down, says Doug, the sky's the limit. After 18 years on the road, he and the Riders are still learning new tricks. "I'm not the most adventurous yodeler in the world," he says, "but there's a song on our new album where I yodel over a diminished chord, which I never heard anybody do before. So, yeah, it's still an evolving thing, and I'm working with some other slow yodels--because you can't go in and do the hottest yodel you know song after song--and some evocative things."

Turning reflective, the Ranger says, "It's a funny thing to be in the middle of your career, because you can look back at the beginning and say, well, I had a better tone when I was younger, and a little more range, but as I get older I've got a lot more technical ability and, I hope, a lot more feeling. It's an interesting tradeoff."

Ranger Doug takes special care to avoid smoking, and he maintains a steady regimen of exercise in order to maintain those long high notes. He also depends on his fellow Riders for some yodeling support. "We have a few three-part yodeling songs," he says. " 'Lonely Yukon Stars' and 'The Line Riders,' and some others that we do in a kind of a round form."

Even "That's How the Yodel Was Born" has changed a little, says Doug. "Slim yodels eight bars, then Woody picks it up at twice the tempo for eight bars, and then I pick it up, again at twice the tempo, and I do the tough part. So, everybody gets featured."

Just as long as no one has to ride that bronco again.

Riders in the Sky perform twice Thursday--a 5pm children's show (kids $10.50, adults $13.50) and an adult show at 8pm (all tickets $14.50) at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., SC. Tickets are available at Cymbaline, 21st Century CD and by phone with credit card payment (429-7663)

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From theMarch 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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