It’s a brisk March morning, and VFW Post 950 in Mankato is slowly starting to fill with people. It’s almost time for the annual Civil War Symposium, hosted by a local volunteer group called The Boy in Blue Project. During this day-long event, different Civil War re-enactors will share about life on the front and back home, and each will have their own interesting twist on history.
One man, though, might stand out even among all the colorful characters: Lonesome Ron, King of the Valley Yodelers.
With a guitar strung across his chest and a cowboy hat perched on his head, Lonesome Ron wanders the building, singing the songs of cowboys of old. His voice rises in a mournful wail as he strums the guitar strings. Those old enough to remember compare him to TV’s black and white singing cowboys—Roy Rodgers, Bob Baker and Gene Autry.
In real life, Lonesome Ron is Ron Affolter, an unassuming retiree who lives in Mankato. But honestly, thanks to the plethora of musical groups he’s in and appearances he gives throughout the year, Affolter might spend more time than not in his Lonesome Ron persona—and he doesn’t mind at all.
“I just like playing music,” he said. “I like making people happy with music and making myself happy with music.”
Born in the Valley
Affolter was born in Mankato and still lives there today. During high school, he and some friends toyed with the idea of starting a band, but it never took off past the talking stage. However, it did spur Affolter to pick up a guitar for the first time, and he ended up teaching himself how to play. “Nothing really materialized, but I started plunking around a guitar,” he recalled.
That musical skill came in handy in the early 1970s when he saw an ad for a ’50s-style band called Spiff Cool and the Keeno Jets. Eventually, the group morphed into the East Side Pharaohs. For the next 30 years, Affolter played bass with the old school rock and roll band, until many of the original members moved on and he moved on too.
I just like playing music. I like making people happy with music and making myself happy with music.
At the same time, Affolter began playing with folk bands and bluegrass bands, usually on bass. Groups included the Oak Row String Band, the Flathead Cats and the Long Journey Home Band. It was with this band that he received his moniker Lonesome Ron.
Affolter explained that he got the name during his time as a musician on KMSU Radio, MSU-Mankato’s campus station. The Long Journey Home Band had a show on the station in the 1980s, and a guest fiddle player started jokingly referring to him as “Lonesome Ron.” While he didn’t do anything with the name for 20 years, once he began volunteering at Wild West-themed events, he noticed that many of the re-enactors had their own cowboy-flavored nicknames, such as Renegade and Dakota Rose. So, he decided to become Lonesome Ron.
But “Lonesome Ron” is only half of Affolter’s stage persona. The other half is “King of the Valley Yodelers.” For Affolter, yodeling was something that interested him for a long time but also took a long time to perfect.
“With the Pharaohs, I sang a lot of high falsetto,” he said, explaining that ’50s-style music typically has a male part that swings high. “When I saw [the country western musical group] Riders in the Sky on TV yodeling, I thought, ‘I’ve got to do that. That looks like fun.’ So, I practiced yodeling. And eventually, several years later, I was yodeling.”
To become a skilled yodeler, Affolter began listening to old TV star Jimmie Rodgers, imitating Rodgers’ yodeling style. Eventually, he felt confident enough with the basics to move on to more complicated yodeling, such as the kind showcased in performances by Riders in the Sky. After extensive practice, the King was born.
“I chose ‘king of the valley yodelers’ because in the Riders, there’s the king of the cowboy fiddlers,” Affolter said. “And Roy Rodgers was king of the cowboys. So, I chose the king of something, too. Plus, I grew up in the [Mankato] valley, so there it was.”
Sharing His Music
While Affolter worked as a computer programmer and math instructor until he retired, he continued pursuing his true passion — music — whenever he could. Besides playing in groups, he began touring as a solo act with his new persona. As Lonesome Ron, Affolter attends historical events such as Mankato History Fest and Spirit of the West in Sioux Falls. During these events, he not only sings and plays historical songs but also shares about life on the range, cattle drives, Wild West outlaws and even tidbits about famous cowboys on film.
Affolter also performs at nursing homes, birthday parties and other events, traveling as far as Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.
“Nursing homes are fun, because I try to find songs that will find a person’s memory,” he said. “There are studies that say that if a person hears songs from their youth, they might conjure up other memories.”
Affolter has about 15 different cowboy outfits most of which were purchased from a vendor in Sioux Falls who sells old-style cowboy clothes. He has thought about expanding his character into more cowboy-type stuff, such as roping, but he said he decided to save what little free time he has left for just practicing his music.
Throughout the years, Affolter has expanded his musical repertoire. He started out with more traditional and historically correct cowboy songs, such as “The Streets of Loredo.” However, when he started playing at nursing homes, he found that residents often preferred “singing cowboy” songs such as “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” popularized by the likes of Gene Autry. Eventually, he started including more modern country western songs as well. And, of course, there’s plenty of yodeling.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing when I’m yodeling,” Affolter admitted. “I just hit the notes, and they usually fit. But I can’t say that I’m playing ’this scale’ and hitting ‘these notes.’”
Affolter said his favorite type of song to sing is the traditional pioneer genre, though he enjoys singing and listening to many types of music. He’s pulling many genres together for a special event at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City this June. He explained that the center invited him to perform and asked him to put together something on the history of western music.
A Wider Audience
In 2013, Affolter had a chance to share his music with an even wider audience after receiving an Emerging Artist grant from the Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council. With this grant, he was able to produce a CD, “Songs of the American Cattle Trails,” which features 15 tracks of cowboy songs, including three that Affolter wrote himself.
In fact, Affolter estimated that he has written about 50-60 songs in his lifetime. He tries to write historical songs with a story behind them, finding an interesting bit of history and creating a narrative around it. Some of his music has been featured in the Jesse James documentary, “Confessions of the Ninth Man.”
Affolter himself has been featured on TV a few times, including a gig where he was hired to yodel for a Detroit Pistons basketball team commercial. In addition, he had a semi-recurring role (as Lonesome Ron, of course) on the soap opera spoof “As the Corn Grows,” which was locally produced in Fairmont in the early 2000s.
Affolter’s next public appearance will be at the Civil War Symposium held on March 28. The event runs 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at VFW Post 950, located at 1900 North Riverfront Drive in Mankato. Space is limited, so advance registration is recommended (especially for lunch). Advance adult tickets are $25 and student tickets are $17.
Getting to know Lonesome Ron
- Born in: Mankato
- Lives in: Mankato
- Former career: Computer programmer and math instructor
- Favorite music: Singing Cowboy style tunes
- Fun fact: When Affolter isn’t strumming a guitar, you can often find him onstage performing in Merely Players productions such as “My Fair Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “Annie.”
- Website: www.lonesomeron.com
Besides sharing his music with his audience, Affolter also brings something else unique to many of the historical events he attends: books. For the past 10 years, Affolter has handed out books to kids he sees at different events, such as Mankato’s History Fest. He said he finds age-appropriate books at library book sales and hands them out for free to encourage kids to keep reading and learning.
“I like to encourage reading,” he said. “I like to encourage all kinds of education. If somebody is interested in sports, even if I’m not, I think that’s great and want to encourage it. It’s the same with books.”
An honorary member?
In 2010, Affolter won the Jimmie Rodgers video contest with his song Ben Dewberry’s Final Run. The prize was a plaque and a lifetime membership to the Jimmie Rodgers Society. Unfortunately, the society’s website went down shortly after, and Affolter isn’t even sure if it is still running.
“I’m a lifetime member of their society, but if they don’t exist anymore, I’m not sure what I’m a member of,” he said with a laugh.