Andy Furgeson, Austin High School Class of 2001, left town for college in California at 18 but has made it back to Austin three or four times a year to play as Red Yarn, a children’s music act with animal puppets.
That is until the coronavirus pandemic happened. Scheduled to be here for South by Southwest, he, his wife, Jessie Eller-Isaacs, their 3-year-old daughter and their 6-year-old son have been at home in Portland, Ore.
His sixth album is coming out Aug. 7, and it is strangely linked to this time of staying at home. "Backyard Bop" is the first album that is only original songs, with titles like "Outside My Window," "Neighborhood Park," "Lazy Tonight," "Critters in My Garden" and "My Own Backyard," along with songs with emotions in the name, such as "Someone to Love" and "Jump for Joy."
"I had no idea when I wrote these songs what the world would look like," he says.
He wrote them mostly last summer and fall and was able to travel to New York in January to record the songs before the world changed.
"It’s kind of incredible, the timing of it," he says, "the relevance."
With other albums, Furgeson has gone out to a farm for a photo shoot. This time, everything was done socially distanced in his backyard.
To keep performing, he’s been playing on Facebook Live from his home and asking for donations. At first, both he and his wife, who performs with him, would be on the feed, but they quickly learned that the 6-year-old was "a little ham, and the 3-year-old wants Mom."
Now the kids go outside while Red Yarn performs.
The name Red Yarn is a sort of anagram of Andrew as well as a nod to his red hair and a yarn being an old folk tale, which Furgeson has brought to today’s kids in previous albums.
Typically, his summer would include shows in Portland, in Austin and elsewhere for kids.
"My work landscape has changed completely," he says, but he still likes to think about the kids on the other end of the livestream and tries to perform for them.
"The moment I am looking at the camera, yes, I am interacting with people," he says. "I get this rush of energy and positivity."
He asks the audience questions and then imagines that they are answering. "I’m acting as though the audience is engaging."
Fans have sent him videos of kids at home who are talking to the screen and answering his questions. He’s found other ways of interacting, such as sharing artwork kids have sent to him and doing birthday shoutouts. He tries to think of ways to engage both the gregarious kids and the more introverted kids.
Aside from the regular donations to his Venmo during the Facebook Live sessions, Furgeson is thinking of experiences and private fee-based programs for the fall that could help offset the fact that all but four of the 50 shows he had booked for this summer have been canceled, and those four went virtual.
"The silver lining has been a great summer with my kids," he says. "I’m trying to appreciate that while finding creative ways to pay the bills."
His favorite track on the new album is "My Own Backyard," he says. "It feels the most authentic to my childhood. It gets back to my Texas roots when I was a teen and into rockabilly."
At that time he worked at a full-service gas station off Exposition Boulevard. He dressed like a greaser with slicked-back hair and drove around town in a beat-up Volvo with flames painted on it. And he listened to Buddy Holly, who was a big influence. His dad was from Lubbock like Holly, and that was where both parents went to college.
"It most emotionally resonates with me," he says of "My Own Backyard." Some songs on this album are more fun to play live, and some are more mellow or reflective.
What was really cool about going to high school in Austin was the kids who came out of Austin High in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he says, including Shakey Graves, Gary Clark Jr., Warren Hood, Suzanna Choffel ... and Red Yarn. All very different kinds of music. Of course, he’s the only one with a suitcase full of puppets and an audience that is mostly in preschool.
Furgeson says he’s desperate to get back out in his community and perform for kids in person again, as well as to travel to Austin to see his family and friends and perform for kids here.
Until then, he’s riding bikes with the kids, dipping into little river spots nearby and hoping that people will download the new album and attend the livestream shows.