Yodel-Lady-Who? Six-Time Yodel Champ Paula Erlene
The Valley is home to lots of different types of music, including a surprisingly Western style that may not come to mind right away. Paula Williamson, who sings under the name Paula Erlene is a six-time yodeling champion who lives in Arizona.
“I’ve been yodeling since I was two, my mama says,” Erlene said as she laughs. “My daddy was a Baptist preacher, and so we lived in a very, very rural place in Arkansas. And we couldn’t even get the radio, we were so far from anywhere, and so my mom had a huge record collection, and most of it was country music. So I learned to yodel with all those records.”
Lots of people think of yodeling as an Alpine tradition, but some varieties are distinctly Western. Erlene said you can hear the vocal techniques used in yodeling in some country music, for example, when Hank Williams Sr. makes his voice break.
“You’re changing from your chest voice to your falsetto,” Erlene explained. “And that’s what yodeling is.”
That vocal similarity helps make it possible for Erlene to perform not only as a yodeler, but also as a country tribute artist. She worked for a while doing a show in Branson, Missouri, called Hank and Patsy Revisited, singing the music of Patsy Cline.
These days Erlene performs mostly yodeling music, including a show with her husband, who is a bona fide John Wayne look-alike.
When it comes to a niche genre like yodeling, most people have a very limited understanding of what exactly it is. It’s usually a pop culture reference, like a cartoon, or a scene in "The Sound of Music."
“Most people say, ‘Oh! So you can do The Sound of Music,’ and I think that’s really not yodeling, because yeah they hit the right notes, so you can go ayyy-eee! But it’s not yodeling. She really just hit the notes.”
As a champion yodeler, people have asked Erlene for lessons, but she said it’s one of those things that is tough to teach.
"I mean I can tell you what to do, but it's kind of like swimming," Erlene said. "I can tell you how to swim, but that doesn't mean you're going to be able to swim ... Honestly, it's a matter of just practicing until you get it, until it sounds right."
Erlene has a new album out called "Across The Brazos," and she'll be performing throughout January at Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West.