Diverse artist Andy Offutt Irwin always a crowd-pleaser|
By Alan Back
Got backup plans out the wazoo
May 28, 1999
Spend enough time knocking around this overcrowded stretch of pavement that laughingly calls itself a city, and you'll eventually stumble across every single one of the strange and intriguing characters that make their homes here. On the acoustic music scene, few stand out as prominently, or for as many reasons, as Andy Offutt Irwin.
The 41-year-old Covington native has been performing professionally on his own since 1984 and has also put in time with groups in other cities. A five-year stint of writing, directing, and performing with the SAK Theatre improvisational comedy group at Walt Disney World would ultimately prove valuable when he struck out on his own.
"When I write songs, I try to keep my mind open to whatever comes along," he explained during a telephone interview from his home on May 12. "The main challenge for me is not thinking of ideas, but capturing them and writing them down...When I wrote 'Fountain Pen,' I was literally writing a letter and I started thinking beyond that-to the mechanics of writing-and those sorts of things just kind of kept coming."
Irwin is just as likely to sing cheerfully about a boy who loses his girl to the Ku Klux Klan ("Clarice") as he is to reflect on the nature of infinity and Bic ballpoints ("Fountain Pen") or dip into his reserve of bizarre and funny stories. But he can get serious and contemplative, such as on "Pooh Is Calling"-a look back at the sense of wonder and discovery that turns childhood into an adventure.
He often closes his shows with this song, stepping out into the audience to strum and whistle his way through the end of it. The whistling (which must be heard to be appreciated) is one part of a bewildering range of vocal effects he works into his music.
Novelties of this type, he commented, are things he learned to use so he could attract an audience while working Renaissance festivals in locations such as Kansas City. They translate well to other venues, though. At the Red Light Cafe on May 1, Irwin brought two spectators up on stage for a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"-he played part of the tune on their heads with a squeaky toy mallet while whistling the rest and brought down the house.
Does the crowd always appreciate his variety of humor right from the start? No, but he has ways of dealing with a tough room, starting with a rule he set for himself: "Always assume your audience is as smart as you think they are. Sometimes they're not. But I assume that they are and that they're interested in what I'm doing. I never question their maturity either."
A recent engagement at a coffeehouse in Charlotte turned into a test of those principles when Irwin found himself playing to a rather young crowd. "They were talking and heckling, and I could tell I wasn't what they'd expected. So I started treating them like children...This was when I pulled out my second-grade schoolteacher character. I picked out the loudest kid and did that to him, and it worked! He fell out; he was the one who got everybody else to be quiet."
He credits part of the success he has with audiences to the humor inherent in reversing the roles of children and adults. "If I'm patronizing enough, if I'm very, very patronizing, then people see the irony in that and it's funny. I'm not one of those comedians who are always bitter; I try to act lightly with people and have fun with them while I'm patronizing."
An Andy Offutt Irwin show doesn't always consist of a guy, his guitar, and the character voices he lets loose. Some of his backing musicians, known as "Finger Monsters," occasionally pop in to liven things up-and when they do, they can take the whole show off the rails!
"The whole idea of the Finger Monsters is that sometimes they just take over," Irwin said. "I'll call for a song and start playing it, and they'll start playing another one...Or like the end of '[Would You Mind Dating an] Extremist'-one time, they just got up and left! The stage was bare and I was just standing there."
He continued, "Sometimes it really does get out of hand. I don't know what to do about them, but they're all grownups and I don't pay them enough to really boss them around. So I'm stuck with them-but they're all better players than I am, and I'm aware of that."
The "Finger Monsters" startedn when Irwin's drama group at Georgia College and State University was working on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but the band needed someone to cover percussion. "I called [Ron Balthazor] up and said, 'Ron, I need a drummer to play in Superstar. I'll let you be Simon the zealot-but you have to transfer to Georgia College,'" he recalled.
A new album should be finished in about six months ("But don't hold your breath," he quipped), but in the meantime Irwin has plenty of other goodies to keep him busy. He has performed with the Georgia Renaissance Festival in Fairburn since 1994, doing his own stage show, "Offutt the Minstrel." This gig grew out of a run-in with the music director for a similar festival during recording sessions for a friend's album.
"I was being silly, and she looked over at me and said, 'You ought to be in our show!' I said, 'Funny you should say that; I've done things like that before,'" he noted. "They'd already held auditions, but she let me try out. I auditioned the next week and went straight from there to rehearsals." Starting out as a street performer with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, he attracted attention from the Ren Fest organizers during what he described as a "company talent show"-and Offutt the Minstrel was born.
Irwin is also the Artist in Residence for Oxford College at Emory University when he gets off the road. "I started in 1992 as the interim drama director," he explained, "and they sort of kept me around because I'd volunteer for other things. I played guitar for the music groups and the chorale, and I did a little bit of everything." This past year, he directed productions of Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth and one of his own plays.
"I will be there next year, but it's very part-time, maybe 10 hours a week...No one is more abused than a part-time, salaried worker," he laughed. "But it's fun, and I like it."
The enjoyment he gets from all his different projects is so contagious, the people who show up to see him can't help but catch a dose. Good thing there isn't a vaccine. Andy Offutt Irwin will be performing just southe of here at the Georgia Renaissance Festival on May 29 and 30, and on June 5 and 6. Call (770) 964-8575 for ticket information and directions.