After a few rounds of "Splish Splash" and "Bingo Was His Name" performed by kids of widely varying ages, Sean Murray abruptly changed the entire tenor of the room. With a big, beefy baritone -- if you closed your eyes, you'd have thought it was Josh Turner, or maybe even Johnny Cash sprung back to life -- the Osseo 16-year-old belted out a pitch-perfect rendition of "Long Black Train."
A hushed awe settled over the front section of Elks Lodge 44 in Brooklyn Park as the baby-faced, curly-mopped kid delivered surprisingly rich, deep vocals. But quiet solemnity was hardly the order of the day for most of the Kids Karaoke event, a monthly mainstay at the lodge.
"You get a little surprised by the talent level of these kids, but this is mainly for them just to have fun," said Tracy Rusinyak, the emcee and keeper of the 4,500-song playbook. (Many of the participants bring their own discs.) "Some of the kids don't want to sing by themselves, so they'll get up there with a couple of friends the first few times. Then it's such a thrill the first time you see one of the kids do something on their own."
The monthly session, almost certainly the only one if its kind in the area, was the brainchild of Vince Frazer, who bears a slight resemblance to Colonel Sanders. "We've always had karaoke on Friday night, and by golly the kids had to leave at 9 o'clock" because of state laws, Frazer said. "The first time we did it for kids, we had three singers, the next time five, and then it just exploded. One time we had 41 singers."
There were about two dozen performers at September's gathering, an especially impressive showing given the gorgeous weather outside. Most were "veterans" of these events, but first-timer Nathan Evers of north Minneapolis made the kind of transformation Rusinyak had seen before. Nathan's eyes were furtive and his voice tentative during the afternoon's opener, "Splish Splash." But an hour or so later he got downright funky and spunky while performing "YMCA," raising both arms in triumph as he left the stage.
"I wasn't expecting this whole big crowd," said Nathan, a 16-year-old student at Minnesota Transitions School. "I usually only sing hymns in public, but my friends were here and gave me a lot of support."
'Big kids' need permission
Indeed, the 50-plus audience members were sometimes more spirited than the performers -- especially after they got a few jolts of Diet Pepsi in 'em -- whistling along to "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" and somewhat clumsily semaphoring their way through "YMCA."
Toward the end of the day, a half-dozen women stood in the back and "line-danced," swinging and swaying and arm-waving to Kenny Chesney and Uncle Cracker's "When the Sun Goes Down." "I'm the instigator," said Marilyn Epp of Brooklyn Park. "We'd stand up and do the 'YMCA' thing, too, except some people can't spell."
That's the extent of the participation by the "big kids." Parental units "can sing only if they get the kids' permission to do it," Frazer said.
That's a far cry from virtually every other "grab a mike and belt away" event in the Twin Towns. Both Karaoke Tonite store manager Robert Lehmkuhl and Mia Dorr, whose Premier Entertainment sponsors the kid-friendly Karaoke Stage at the State Fair, said they know of no other events like this on the local calendar. "We used to have a kids' show on Sundays at Robert's on Hwy. 10, but it's gone now," Dorr said.
And while karaoke's foremost venues, local bars, have gained a bit more appeal for families since the statewide smoking ban was enacted, they're still, well, bars. Most of them don't start their karaoke events until around 9 p.m. when in many cases children are not allowed to be there.
So the younger set at the Elks Club, tucked into half of a former Country Club Market in a nondescript strip mall, can cut up and not worry about whether they're audible enough or in the just-right key. And amid the swell family vibe, it matters little if the "tweens" and teens fully grasp the Shania Twain lyrics. They're just here for the singing, to tap their inner Faith Hill or Jimmy Buffett.
Murray siblings stand out
Except, that is, when Sean Murray or his sister Katie Rae take the mike, showing off the family's world-class pipes. With their natural twang, they tackle mostly country and gospel tunes with aplomb. "We used to live in a small town [Baudette]," said Sean, "and when we moved here three years ago, we stopped talking like that but we can still sing like that."
Whether singing "Amazing Grace" (Katie Rae) or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (Sean), they display amazing range. Turns out that they get a lot of practice at home, in frequent karaoke sessions with parents David and Rayetta Murray or on their own.
"Katie Rae will sing in the shower, she'll sing when she wakes up, she'll sing when she goes to bed," said David Murray. "Sean sings in his room with the door closed, sorta like me."
Katie Rae, flashing a sheepish smile, confirmed that she uses shower time to hone her skills. "That's where I test stuff, experiment with new songs, and long notes, and particularly tough segments," said the 13-year-old, a Taylor Swift and Martina McBride fan who said she might want to try Nashville someday. "I like to think about what the song needs to sound like."
Onstage, she seems more comfortable than her brother, who admits that he only recently regained his confidence from when his voice started changing three years ago.
"I used to sing like [high-pitched] Aaron Carter. Now I'm more like [deep-voiced] Josh Turner," said Sean. "We try to do some silly songs, not be too serious. Sometimes singing well is not as important as people really enjoying themselves. That's what karaoke's all about, making people feel good and get a few laughs."
Now that's a sentiment kids of all ages can share.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643