You thought you knew “Kumbaya,” that most ubiquitous of summer-camp songs foisted on unsuspecting Christian youths jacked up on bug juice and dazed by a crackling fire. “Let’s have a sing-a-long,” suggests a chipper counselor, who then strums that simpering tune on her acoustic guitar.
If only Cookie LaRue, Asheville’s self-described “irritainer” had been the camp counselor. Trail mix would be replaced by tuna-noodle casserole, soap operas would trump nature walks, and campers everywhere would be clued in to the real meaning of “Kumbaya.” Instead, the story behind the song is only available to those lucky enough to land a copy of LaRue’s new CD, Just Folkin’ With You.
Here’s the story: One-woman drag act LaRue (also the proprietress of LaRue’s Backdoor, located behind O. Henry’s), supposedly recorded the collection of folk tunes four decades ago. “It was at a time when Cookie was having some problems with Liza Minnelli-type substances, so she doesn’t even remember recording it,” actor Michael Sheldon (the man behind the LaRue persona) reveals.
“Allegedly Pete Seeger had insisted that Cookie do this folk-music record,” Sheldon continues, “and once he heard it, he was worried that all the other emerging folk musicians at the time would just be overshadowed. So, he stopped production and it got thrown in the vault.”
LaRue’s record company, which declines to be named due to “certain legal issues involving Cookie,” was searching its vaults for folk chestnuts to include on a retrospective when they came across the entertainer’s lost record.
Of course, this whole scenario is in jest; the disc actually was recorded by Sheldon, who accompanied himself on guitar, while he was convalescing with a broken knee. The CD’s 17 tracks crackle with the actor’s inimitable camp humor and LaRue’s trademark nasal New Jersey accent. Well-worn classics are remade in LaRue’s image (“Blowin’ in the Winds,” “Diamonds and Rusts”) and when she forgets a line, she just hums along or makes something up. Fans of LaRue’s one-woman shows (often performed with sidekick pianist “Frankie Sitz”) know the drag queen’s penchant for double entendre and butchering show tunes to sidesplitting effect.
Sheldon originally imagined LaRue as a cartoon. “After I moved to Asheville I went to [now-defunct gay bar] the Cockatoo and saw a drag show,” he says. “I was doing lots of theater and stuff and I thought, why don’t I just become Cookie instead of trying to draw her? I would lip-synch initially, and realized there was so much stuff I wanted to do with the songs—change the meanings or change the words, use different inflections—and with lip-synching I couldn’t really do that. [So I decided to] just sing.”
The thing is—unlike LaRue—Sheldon is a talented performer with a strong singing voice. (Much like British comedian Patricia Routledge, a trained singer who often portrays her most famous character, the overbearing housewife Hyacinth Bucket, as an off-key hack.) But for a good singer to feign that he has no ear takes skill.
“It’s weird,” Sheldon admits. “Sometimes I’ll be singing as Cookie and think, ‘Oh s**t, that was good. Oh no. Add more vibrato!’”
The other thing would-be fans may not get off the bat is that LaRue, with her polyester pantsuits, pouffy hair, Tammy Faye eye makeup and sagging bosom, is all tongue-in-cheek. “When I first started doing Cookie I think people just thought I was a bad drag queen,” Sheldon recalls. “They didn’t get that I wasn’t trying to be pretty. Eventually they understood it was a camp thing.”
In the more than 20 years he’s been developing the sassy character (she claims she was left on the doorstep of the Passaic Home For Unwanted Girls in New Jersey and later raised by pop star Connie Francis), Sheldon admits that the flamboyant diva persona can sometimes take on a life of its own (“Oh yeah, don’t go making copies of this for your cheap a** friends,” LaRue insists in her CD’s liner notes. “If they want a copy they can get down to LaRue’s Backdoor and get their own copy and youse can tell ‘em I said so”). But this time around, LaRue seems poised to cash in on Asheville’s neo-folk movement.
That, or totally put the music-loving public off folk songs once and for all.
who: Cookie LaRue CD release party
what: Local personality and “irritainer” reinvents folk music; DJ iGuy opens
where: LaRue’s Backdoor
when: Friday, Jan. 18. 10 p.m. ($5. Info: 252-1040)