John Lamb, Published August 29 2010
Keillor and his soundman take to Trollwood stage Wednesday
For a couple minutes, he talks about some highlights from the past
30 years – authoring the book “Mouth Sounds,” doing voice-overs for animals in films and, of course, as sound-effects man on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“I’m a sound nerd,” he explains with enthusiasm.
Newman, Garrison Keillor, The Guy’s All-Star Show Band and the rest of “A Prairie Home Companion” Summer Love Tour take to the Trollwood Performing Arts School stage in south Moorhead on Wednesday night. The show is similar to the popular public radio program, though it isn’t broadcast live.
While Keillor hosts the show and sings duets with special guest Sara Watkins, it’s usually Newman who upstages the “Prairie Home” shows with various squeaks, creaks, calls and cacophonous sounds.
A review of last week’s tour stop in Salt Lake City said Newman “nearly stole the show with his hilarious aural ‘illustrations’ of Keillor’s stories.”
“It just feels like I’m pulling a scam is what it feels like,” says the 58-year-old Newman.
Sounds of the South
Newman grew up in Georgia around storytellers who needed the sounds of cars cranking or cats being thrown from windows to really bring their tales to life.
Raconteurs taught him how to enrich his own yarns with tones other than his voice, explaining how to make the sound of water dripping. By 6 he started “collecting sounds.”
After graduating from Harvard Business School, he worked stand-up comedy in New York and found that vocal effects really resonated with audiences.
Newman translated his techniques into the instructional book “Mouth Sounds” in 1980 (re-released in 2004 with an enhanced CD), which earned him an appearance on “Prairie Home.”
Throughout the years, Keillor invited him back, and Newman says he’d drop anything to be on the show, to work with someone who thinks as quick on their feet as the man from Lake Wobegone.
Ten years ago, the show’s primary soundman, Tom Keith, announced that he didn’t want to travel anymore. Newman was only too happy to be the permanent touring noisemaker. He estimates 80 percent of “Prairie Home” shows are on the road.
“I’m lucky to be doing it,” Newman says.
He’s not the only one to consider himself lucky on the show. Sara Watkins grew up listening to “Prairie Home” and is thrilled every time she’s on stage.
“It’s kind of like meeting Santa Claus when you’re a kid,” she says. “It’s really exciting. It’s like magic to me. You hear these sounds and you look and think, ‘He’s doing it!’ ”
Watkins calls the sound man’s workbench “a secret world” of noisemakers.
Make some noise
While working with Keillor is rewarding, Newman also works on sound design in movies, notably as Mogwai in “Gremlins” and less notably in the “Gremlins” knock-off “Munchies.”
Sometimes he’ll be called to give a voice to something even less human. Newman explains that if a dog can look sympathetic resting its head on someone’s knee but doesn’t sound that way, he’ll provide a pooch voice-over.
“I’m just so interested in how we perceive sound and how things work,” he says, adding that he likes the challenge of creating requested sounds, like for a Nazi submarine.
Would a Nazi submarine really sound that much different than, say, an Allied submarine?
“Yeah, you’d probably put a bit more aggression on it,” he says.
For example, Newman recalls working with sound designers after they did “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In the scenes where lead character Indiana Jones fights the Nazis as they drive a truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant, each clip where the Nazis are in control, the sound of the engine is mixed with the audio of snarling pit bulls.
While listeners know what to expect on the weekly broadcasts of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Newman says the Summer Love Tour allows the performers to mix things up a bit more.
Because each show isn’t broadcast live, the script doesn’t need to be constrained to two hour-long halves. Therefore, Keillor and company have some room to roam, or react to the environment.
During a show last week in Salt Lake City, cold winds played havoc with performers.
“Garrison is so quick, we did a lot more stormy kind of things,” Newman says, “We could get in biblical references out there because the weather was so biblical.”
Newman says shows not only change from town to town but often right up until doors open.
“He’s at his best,” Newman says of Keillor. “He’s so loose and almost conspiratorial with the audience. It’s really fun to see that kind of interaction.”
Keillor’s scripts keep the sound man on his toes, but a very different upcoming job has ideas bubbling up in his head.
Newman was asked to give voice to Old Faithful, to create the sounds all the way down to the magma miles below the surface interacting with water to create the Yellowstone National Park geyser.
His favorite sounds for “Prairie Home” are characters who don’t get brought into the spotlight too often; the slippery salesman Maurice Williams (“He’s someone deep in my past”) and the owner of a mobile hair salon, Lurlene Cheatwood.
“She’s kind of a 300-pound trailer-park version of Martha Stewart,” Newman explains. “Her three daughters are Lather, Rinse and Repeat.”
And his least favorite sound to make?
“We’ve only had one appearance of a pterodactyl this whole tour, and there’s only so many different ways you can do a pterodactyl,” Newman says. “In my head, I know what a pterodactyl is, but somehow on the show it’s become this big, sort of Tyrannosaurus Rex that walks with these pounding feet and a pterodactyl is soaring. But it doesn’t matter; it’s radio, we can do whatever we want.”
“This is the best thing I’ve ever worked on,” he says. “Anytime I’m not on (stage), I stop and listen and watch.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533
Throughout the 1980s, soundman Fred Newman worked with master puppeteer Jim Henson on various Muppet projects.
Newman said working with Henson taught him how to be more selfless in collaborations rather than being concerned with getting noticed.
“I learned about humility and just playing the role deferential to other people.”
So, having worked so closely with both Muppets and Garrison Keillor, which felty, furry creature would be the best duet partner for the host of “Prairie Home Companion”?
“Certainly Miss Piggy would be great. He loves doing duets with females,” Newman says of Keillor. “Rowlf on piano kind of reminds me of Rich (Dworsky, director of ‘Prairie Home’s’ house band). Rowlf played boogie-woogie and had a foot in ragtime. I think he would be very comfortable playing with Rowlf the Dog.
“Actually, any of those characters would work. Garrison is such a character himself, like nobody else, he would fit in with the Muppets.”
– John Lamb, The Forum
If you go
- What: Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” Summer Love Tour
- When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
- Where: Trollwood Performing Arts School, 801 50th Ave. SW, Moorhead
- Info: Tickets $38, $48 or $68. (800) 514-3849