I spent many happy hours recently watching my 6-year-old son, Will, wrestle with his new guitar. With his freshly spiked hair and shirt collar turned up, he’d strike a pose on the footstool in front of a full-length mirror and belt ’em out while flogging his "Little Martin." Thrashing his polytonal, homemade chords and taking his best shot at Cash, Buffet and SpongeBob, he performs in front of an imaginary stadium crowd. As he’s told me, "Pops, girls like guys with lots of hair who sing songs." I explained that’s true, depending on the songs and how much hair he has to gel.
Since he was a tot, he’s been interested in my guitar. Admittedly, it was mostly to climb into the case or hurl marbles at the strings. Eventually he started plucking and emulating songs he heard. From the beginning, his ability to pick up melodies and complicated lyrics stunned me. How does he remember all that? Clean living, I guess.
Since all parents long for their kids to concentrate on something other than bad TV and picking boogers, I decided to encourage his possible talent. The decision to lay down $300 for a Martin was accelerated after watching my custom Washburn careen into walls and door jams. After a few short weeks, I’m convinced this purchase will continue to be used and is not destined for the black hole known as the "toy box."
I attribute some of Will’s enthusiasm to albums like the ones I’m recommending this month—albums that, while considered "adult," are still favorites of my 6-year-old. As always, I hope you consider these CDs with the caution that they are far from the usual children’s fare and might raise an eyebrow or two.
JOE COOL’S BLUES, Wynton Marsalis and Ellis Marsalis, Columbia, 1995, $11.98 CD.
Every kid loves Charlie Brown. And while few have come close to Vince Guaraldi’s original music, this album does—and it’s great. I received it many years ago as a gift but only recently started listening. My son found it in the back of the stack and popped it on. He loves it. Why was I so tardy? Well, I was biased against the Marsalis family. When I attended the Berklee School of Music years ago, I picked a fight with Wynton’s older brother, Bradford. It was out of jealousy and petty nonsense (and fueled by beer), but consequently it kept me from enjoying New Orleans’ first family of jazz. Even though I would still like to have a couple minutes alone with Bradford, I recommend this disc wholeheartedly. Your child will recognize these tunes and (hopefully) enjoy the masterful playing. Lucy never pulls the football away on this one.
KINDRED SPIRITS: A TRIBUTE TO THE SONGS OF JOHNNY CASH, various artists, Sony, 2002, $11.98 CD.
Will’s taken a real liking to the music of Johnny Cash. Of course, Cash’s distinct voice was the very first thing he noticed. He tells me Johnny’s voice "is like the deep end of the mouth pool." However, as he listened to the music, I think the lyrical content took precedence. Cash’s stuff can be very dark, stark and foreboding, but it’s the stuff legends are made of. Since we’ve been Johnny intensive, my son has started to enjoy other versions of Cash classics.
This is one of the better Cash tributes. Released before his death, it contains compelling renditions of some of his better tunes. Unlike most posthumous Cash products that are quickly cobbled together and pitched on late-night TV, this CD is much better because the artists participating obviously have a great deal of personal and musical affection for Cash. His former son-in-law, Marty Stuart, produced this compilation—and even got the old man to contribute.
Will and I especially love the versions of "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues." As a parent who’s aware of the constant "bad words battle," I’m appreciative of how Keb’ Mo’ softens the lyric "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" to "They said I shot a man in Reno ... that was a lie."
Of course, when Will’s singing to his imaginary throngs, he refuses to alter the line. I’m sure there will be a note home from his first-grade music teacher soon.
IF THAT AIN’T COUNTRY, Anthony Smith, Mercury, 2002, $13.98 CD.
This CD might be hard to find, but it’s worth it. Anthony Smith is a great songwriter out of Nashville. He’s had some success and is definitely a cut above most Hank Williams wannabes.
But a great voice and a unique style aren’t enough for me to send you on a chase. One song is, however. It’s a song many kids, especially those with older grandparents, can relate to. I know Will can.
Will’s great-grandmother Alice is 99 years old. We visit her every time we travel to Michigan. Alice doesn’t talk much, but her eyes light up when we visit. Will’s asked me how she spends her time if she can’t move, play, run or feed herself. We explain that Grandma Alice is dreaming about all the fun things she’s done in the last 100 years.
It’s a hard thing for a kid to understand. But this song sheds some light on things.
The song is "John J. Blanchard" and it includes the line: "One afternoon in June/A nurse saw his finger move/’bout had a heart attack/Went screamin’ down the hall/‘Hey, it’s a miracle,/I think he’s comin’ back!’ "
The rest of the tune just gets better. If you want to explain to your children that people in convalescent homes can see, hear and feel, play this song for them. Also point out that those people might be "coming back" someday.
John Howell is a "Morning Show" co-host at WUSN US 99.5 Radio. He also produces and hosts "The Country Gold Show" on the Westwood One Radio Network.