Playing 250 concerts a year with a gang of puppets wasn’t exactly Andy Furgeson’s plan when he relocated to Portland, Oregon, after college. A guitarist and vocalist, he moved to the city to perform. He just didn’t expect to be accompanied by a piano-playing cow.
Not that Furgeson is upset about it. The puppets, a rotating cast of 20 barnyard animals, were his idea. In Portland, he took a job teaching music at an after-school program to pay the bills.
Around the same time, he discovered that people in his new city were really into puppets. Beady Little Eyes, a puppet-focused event company, was hosting puppet slams in North Portland, and the Portland Puppet Museum, in the city’s Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, was just getting off the ground.
Furgeson, intrigued, began learning more about puppets and soon was making his own. Then, the eureka moment: He could use puppetry to bring his love of traditional folk songs to a younger generation.
He invented the stage name Red Yarn, an alter ego that fit with his red beard, and started booking gigs in elementary schools – where he could perform his modern adaptations of folk tunes, many from the 1950s and ’60s, to kids born in the 2000s.
“I use the puppets to perform skits,” Furgeson says of his crew, which includes everything from the cow to a fiddle-strumming cat. “They help me explore real-life themes that aren’t always easy to talk about.”
The title track from his 2018 album, Red Yarn’s Old Barn, tackles inclusivity: “We’ll all feel better if we could all just be together,” he sings, “and there’s room here in my Old Barn for you.”
Furgeson’s wife, Jessie, and their two young children often perform with him and the puppets. “My 5-year-old son loves banging on the drums during the shows, and my 2-year-old daughter likes to grab the microphone and ‘sing,’” he says. “It’s so awesome to do this with my family.”