Children’s music and animal puppets aren’t intimidating to most, but for Red Yarn, they pose a challenging task in modernizing traditional folk music while making shows the whole family can enjoy.
Andy Furgeson was born and raised in Austin, although his love of teaching led him to take a job in Portland, Oregon, in 2005 as an educator in an after-school program. In 2012, Furgeson created Red Yarn, an alter-ego that allowed him to mesh folk music with puppetry and entertain young children.
Since 2012, Furgeson has made Red Yarn a full-time job and took an academic approach to writing children’s songs by doing extensive research on American folk music. Though he focused on genres from the Pacific Northwest, Ferguson’s initial exposure to folk was through his Texas upbringing.
“Growing up in Austin, I listened to Texas country, singer-songwriter bluegrass music that was so cool to explore,” Furgeson said. “Songs I wrote would always be in this folky vein, but once I started riffing on the old stuff, I was just fascinated by how bizarre some of the songs were.”
Many of the American folk songs Furgeson drew from dealt with mature undertones and such profound ideas as mortality, so the question became how much of that can carry over to children’s music.
“It’s a tricky balance, but I don’t try to sugarcoat or make way with the darker elements of the old songs,” Furgeson said. “I give myself permission to delve into those human themes and bring up subjects that can be conversation starters for families because that’s what music should do.”
Red Yarn has come to Austin during South By Southwest to do live shows on Bill Childs’ independent radio show on KUTX, “Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child.” Childs’ show focuses on music from every genre that is kid-appropriate but appeals to various audiences, and he admires Furgeson’s work.
“I was playing Andy’s stuff before I knew him personally, and what he does well is bringing American folk music to the modern world,” Childs said. “It’s traditional music but it don’t (sic) sound old and somehow has a timeless quality to it.”
Childs said there are many insincere artists trying get into the industry because they think children’s music is easy, but he said it’s actually one of the hardest things to do. A child can walk out during a show or start screaming, so the challenge is to make the experience feel genuine.
“What Andy and I are trying to do from different angles is give kids the tools to learn about different music and make that love grow inside of them,” Childs said.
Red Yarn engages kids with animal puppets Furgeson makes himself, and they’re all characters from a world he created called the The Deep Woods. Three of Furgeson’s albums revolved around this world, but his next album will be a different concept titled Red Yarn’s Old Barn.
Barbara Anderson, a professor in the School of Social Work and Furgeson’s mother, said her son’s new project intrigues her in how he’ll address his own coming of age in Austin through the folk album and the ideas that may resonate with children.
“Going to Barton Springs or spending time with friends at the ranch in Dripping Springs cultivated a lot of his capability and independence,” Anderson said. “It’s part of the fabric of his life that’s always interested him, and it shows in his music.”
Furgeson said Red Yarn’s Old Barn will bring him full circle to his Texas roots and will be released next summer, hopefully bringing new meaning to a younger generation.
“The roots of my musical tastes and who I am as a musician will always reside in Austin,” Furgeson said. “I look for what’s essential in these songs and what the enduring element may be for the kids.”