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Voice Activated

Nov 27, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
James Herron, The Eastern Shore’s Own “Sam Elliott,” Takes the World on a Magical Journey from His Home Studio in Oxford

By Gail Greco

When you hear him speak, you wonder like I did, where his horse is hitched.

An answer comes through the dry, dusty sun as a bull-hide Stetson hat tips, “Over yonder.”

Who is this masked man who isn’t wearing a mask, or a buckaroo’s cinched brim, or any Cherokee-carved boots or suede chaps.

I whimper in the steamy ripples under the chimera of someone who knows how to draw a crowd with his romantic, rub-up-against-the-saddle voice—a replica of movie star Sam Elliott’s legendary cowboy delivery, and better. And that’s what creates the moment as mirage. This is St. Michaels, not Hollywood. And this, we discover, is James Herron of neighboring Oxford, who vividly voiced a vision that could have fooled us, and delightfully did.

That’s because Herron is a professional voice actor, who can manipulate his vocal chords into the gravelly pipes of a spittoon cowboy or the powdery, come-hither amiable tones of a broadcaster hawking for Dunkin Donuts or Blue Cross/Blue Shield. He bellows persuasively, informatively, and entertainingly as conduit, conniver, and conjurer so that we believe, buy, and beg for more. And he doesn’t even own a cowboy hat.

“I never dress the part,” admits Herron. “Don’t need to,” he says, now talking to me out of character in his own organic vocals. “Besides, my head’s too big,” he complains. “Always has been.” But don’t mistake the metaphor of the actor-type full of himself. Herron is as humble and sensitive as the hummingbird he feeds outside his studio window in his Oxford cottage, minutes before delivering the matter-of-fact, yet pointedly alarmist cadence, of a Rod Serling, as he did for a NCAA bowl game TV ad, “…but when two teams meet, they enter a dimension of sight, sound, and mind…you got to be tough to play here.” All of his sound recording is done in a small room at home with state-of-the-art mixing boards, computers, and editing software that allow him to deliver his voice turnkey edited.

Even though Herron talks rugged-cowboy, he’s also the warm, subliminal, fine-and-dandy voice we hear on PBS, BBC, audio books, films, trailers for Lionsgate and Paramount movies, videos for corporations, including Apple, IBM, and Intel, and much more. Among his accolades is a 2008 Telly Award Best Male Voice for a documentary narration of Case Western Reserve University. (Telly Awards honor the best in film and TV.)

But back to humility—we’re talking 30-plus years back—to when he began his career in radio in Washington. A Mid-West native, he spent his school years in Annapolis and Rockville and was a jazz percussionist in the Montgomery County Orchestra, before raising his two children in Maine and Massachusetts. He worked his way into local radio stations such as D.C.’s famous WASH-FM, even though he was told, “Scram, kid, ya just don’t have it!” Now, Herron is at the highest non-celebrity voice artist category (just under the Morgan Freemans’, Jeff Bridges’, and Peter Coyotes’) where the ear matters more than the eye.

One of his clients, Horsefly Films in Ojai, California, uses Herron’s voice in their series on endangered horses. “A great voice actor,” says Horsefly co-owner Jen Miller, “is a James Herron, an amazing unseen storyteller. Yes, there is the picture and the sound, but the voice is crucial and where the magic happens. For this series, we wanted someone with gravitas; someone you trust and believe, and that’s James. When his voice comes into our pictures, even we, as the filmmakers see the film for the first time.” 

In Horsefly’s Of Gods and Kings, the first in their series of endangered rare equine films (http://www.rareequinetrust.com/ofgodsandkings), we hear Herron say, “The history of man is the history of the horse.” That thought is followed up in the second in the series, Tarpan: Painting An Ancient Picture, when Herron profoundly poses in deep-from-the throat concern, a most universal question, “… if we fail the horse, what then of our future?”

For the drama, the learning, and the teaching, “Documentaries are among my favorites to do,” Herron says. He points to a feature length PBS film, Portrait of a Storyteller (viewable at youtube.com) about famous American Indian artist Howard Terpning. (You’ve seen his movie posters for Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music.) Herron’s engaging historical voice weaves in and out as we hear Indian chants, mystical drum beats, and the primordial calls of wild songbirds while the movie recounts Terpning’s artistry. That same steady tone of Herron’s is the voice of The Bucket List Outdoors, a high-drama hunting and fishing show on the Pursuit Channel, with his very deep action-packed voice, so in contrast to his delivery of say an internal (security clearance) video for Lockheed Martin, “where I have to be direct and precise … no interpretation.”

Usually, Herron records his voice-over without visuals, so often the client jumps in to direct mood, tone, and characterization. Sean Benson of Blackfoot Communications in Bozeman, Montana did that recently, working with James on a commercial. “We’re gonna try to do a few things,” Benson instructed. “Let’s go with something real casual, conversational…Now something faster,” and the work is done—all by phone from Benson’s Montana office to Herron’s Eastern Shore studio.

Occasionally, Herron works in recording studios in Boston and Washington, Los Angeles, and New York. Yet, technology lets him choose where to live, and that’s Oxford. And so, here in this tiny historic waterfront town of 600, the voice of at least one resident is now heard around the world. And what he has to say is relevant to all of us—no matter what James Herron is voicing on any given day. Through the power of his voice—even though that of a professional—he shows us how important it is to use this key communication tool well, and not take it for granted. 

“With a little thought,” he says, “you can make even a friend’s dialogue, more interesting, more significant. Think of the person before you say something,” he advises. “Be succinct; important messages first… details later, to grab the attention.”

So, I get it. He’s saying it’s your voice and it’s up to you to make it count by its own natural pacing, tone and mood—whether there’s something serious or even mysterious to discuss, or you’re just having fun. That’s certainly how James Herron the non-cowboy became the cowboy with the black mare, and so I did get to see where it was hitched and, by the way, I also took that ride, and we drove off into the sunset…Really. Really?

Gail Greco is an awarding-winning Discovery Channel and PBS-TV producer and writer/editor who lives on the Eastern Shore, focusing on food, interiors, and awesome personalities.