MERRILL, Wis. (WSAW) -- On Thursday night at the Sawmill Brewery in Merrill, dozens of people are swaying, singing and clapping along to Country Roads with Ryan and Brad Hildebrand. It’s the third or fourth song in the set for the professional yodelers that evening, an open mic night where tables are packed for the evening’s talent.
Brad and Ryan Hildebrand at the Sawmill Brewery in Merrill, Feb. 6, 2020 (WSAW Photo)
The Hildebrands have sung to crowds much larger. They’re three-time Male Yodelling Champions in the annual Albuquerque competition of the International Western Music Association, have recorded in Nashville, and have been singing together since they were nine years old when their German grandfather gave them a yodeling CD.
A year of self-taught yodeling later, the brothers were singing at a 4H camp talent show. Since then, they’ve toured the state and the country with their gift—but the journey hasn’t always been easy.
“We were bullied a lot growing up,” Ryan noted. The twin brothers are also on the autism spectrum, and they say they’ve worked hard to gain the respect of their peers.
“We’ve heard ‘no’ and ‘you can’t’ so many times that those aren’t in our vocabulary anymore,” Ryan reflected. “We’ve had to work so hard to prove all those people wrong.”
“I think it had something to do with our disabilities,” Brad said. Today, family members say they’ve carved out a professional space among their Western music peers where their talents are respected. Today, in fact, they say they’ve retired from competitions to help mentor younger talent.
“There’s always young and new artists coming in, so we kinda stepped away from that and started mentoring,” Ryan said.
“We wanted to give other people a chance,” Brad noted, both brothers chuckling.
But while they’ve spent a lot of their lives on the road, the brothers may not be settling down quite yet. Ryan says they’re considering a move out West where their genre is more in demand, after a lifetime spent in small-town north central Wisconsin.
But in the meantime, you’ll find them often at the open mic in Merrill, where their familiar faces are known and loved.