Sound effects master Fred Newman could fool Mother Nature
The first thing you notice as you approach the remote Fairfield County home is how quiet it is. Oh, there might be a slight wind rustling among the dry branches of the catalpa trees off the long driveway, or the warble of a bluejay on the backyard feeder or the distant gnawing of a branch by a beaver across the pond.
But there’s a part of you wondering: Mother Nature or Fred Newman?
After all, for decades Newman has made a career of creating soundscapes for NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” as well as for other TV series, movies, commercials, videos and concerts. But here in his Connecticut home, Newman can find peace and almost-quiet in a homestead where he has lived for more than 30 years with his wife, Katy Dobbs, and their children.
“When I was growing up, sounds were opportunities,” says Newman, sitting on his porch on a sunny late-winter afternoon as he talks about his life in sound. “You’d hear a dog bark in the distance and you’d know someone’s coming up the driveway or you’d hear a cow that’s gotten out or the ice cream truck down the way with it’s slightly flat jingle.”
Raised as a “hard-pew Presbyterian” (“There were no cushions in church. It wasn’t supposed to be comfortable. Neither is life,” he says), Newman grew up in the small town of LaGrange, Ga., in the late ’50s and ’60s.
“I was a weird, freckle-faced kid, a bit of a loner but with a great fantasy life,” Newman says. At 64 and with his bushy hair white, Newman still evokes the kid excitement of his youth, when he was mesmerized by the storytellers who hung out at Jack Fling’s Cash ’N Carry Grocery and who would color their tales with dramatic facial expressions and sound effects. “You get to a place in storytelling where mere words give out.” Newman remembers as if it was yesterday the time ol’ Snipes taught him to mouth mimic the wet plop of a water drip, a moist sound that still amazes.