Yodeling for his supper
From county fairs to Carnegie Hall, Paradise’s Sourdough Slim is about as famous as a singing cowboy can be
It’s often said that you’re never famous in your own town. Ask the person next to you if he’s ever heard of Sourdough Slim, and he’ll likely say, “Who’s that?”
Clarify by adding, “You know—Rick Crowder.”
Never mind that he has performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall; that he’s yodeled on commercials for Hershey’s and McDonald’s; that he tours with Grammy- and Oscar-winning Western music group Riders in the Sky; that he has a sizable following in England (where he is tentatively scheduled to play a festival in Bath in 2005); and that he hails from just up the hill—Paradise—where he lives with wife Rocki and their 12-year-old son Carson. Most people around here still don’t know Sourdough Slim.
Sourdough Slim, a.k.a. Rick Crowder, would certainly not call himself famous, despite how widely known he is in cowboy music circles across the country. “I’m just a regular guy who was given a gift to be able to yodel and to be able to be this character, Sourdough Slim,” explains Crowder, who also sings, plays guitar, ukulele, harmonica and accordion and does rope and hat tricks and slapstick comedy as part of his act.
“Even the biggest stars in cowboy music, nobody knows who they are,” Crowder reminds me, referring to such greats as Wylie Gustafson (of Wylie & the Wild West), the Academy of Western Artists’ 2004 Will Rogers Yodeler of the Year, and the aforementioned Riders. (Crowder himself was 2001 Will Rogers Yodeler of the Year, a fact he modestly never brought up in our phone conversation.)
Crowder used to be active locally back in the ‘70s and ‘80s (he still performs occasionally at the Paradise Performing Arts Center), playing “two to three times a week” at places like LaSalles and the now-defunct Canal Street with the local group 8th Avenue String Band and a spin-off, The Twilight Trio. Those local performances eventually led to gigs farther from home, such as playing weddings in the Napa Valley, exposing Crowder to a wider audience.
Crowder decided to start a solo act, creating Sourdough Slim in 1988. He began to play at fairs and festivals around the country. It was famous Nevada City folk artist Utah Phillips who, after having heard Sourdough Slim at the Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite, recommended him to the director of Carnegie Hall, who was looking for talented performers to be part of a night of traditional cowboy music. That was in 1994. The rest, as they say, is history.
Recently, Crowder wowed ’em at the huge 20th-annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., in January, where, among other things, he yodeled with visiting Mongolian herdsmen, performed with The Hot Club of Cowtown and did an impromptu Jimmie Rodgers-style three-part yodel with Ian Tyson (of Ian & Sylvia fame) and Wylie Gustafson that drove the crowd wild. He has been invited back for 2005.
Crowder sees himself as “an anachronism,” doing something that “go[es] back to the ‘20s.” But he is very much of today, riding high on the resurgent tide of interest in cowboy poetry and vaudeville à la San Francisco’s Teatro Zanzinni (in May, Crowder performed at S.F.'s Broadway Studios’ “Circus Cabaret,” following a contortionist).
From the lows of being heckled by a gang of 20 skateboarders riding back and forth in front of him during his performance at the Springville (Calif.) Rodeo, to playing before a sold-out house the following night at The Palms in Winters, Crowder is used to the ups and downs of being “the only accordion-playing yodeling cowboy to ever grace the stage of Carnegie Hall.”
“I just enjoy the challenge," he says, "Dodging the spitballs. … I found this gift, and I made the best of it. I love what I do."