The Disney folks are touting their latest children’s record, Country Music for Kids, featuring more than a dozen performers, including Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Buck Owens, Patty Loveless, Glen Campbell, and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, as the first all-star album of its kind. They say in a press release that it ”breaks new ground in the expanding musical arena of contemporary children’s recordings.”
Maybe so. Then again, country singers have certainly recorded children’s material before. Tom T. Hall put out three kids’ albums in the ’70s and ’80s, Songs of Fox Hollow, Saturday Morning Songs, and Country Songs for Kids. And the records of the witty cowboy trio Riders in the Sky have been delighting children for years. As a matter of fact, those albums scarcely marked the first time country music appealed to children or songwriters wrote original country music with youngsters in mind. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, when the postwar decade produced the baby-boom generation, all sorts of kiddie songs attained popularity for country artists.
Most of them were cowboy songs, from Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritter, who turned their attention to making records when the formula Western movies, in which they burst into song at the drop of a sunset, fell out of vogue. But Autry also scored big with non-cowpoke material like ”Ru-dolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and ”Frosty, the Snowman”; and other singers, such as Murv Shiner and Tennessee Ernie Ford, had huge hillbilly hits with ”Peter Cottontail” and ”The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
There’s a difference between the country kids’ songs of yesterday and those of today, though: Much of the modern material on Country Music for Kids makes a point of teaching children important lessons about leading and enjoying productive lives. For instance, Herb Pederson’s bluegrass-driven ”Clean Room Blues” stresses the importance of neatness (”The school bus is coming and I can’t find my shoe”), while ”So Many Questions, So Little Time” encourages the pursuit of knowledge, and ”There’s a Fiddle in the Middle” instructs young listeners on how to identify the sound of various musical instruments.
Moreover, instead of ”dumbing down” the lyrics and treating children simply as pint-size hero-worshipers, the songs respect kids’ intelligence and sensitivity. ”Bingo,” Merle Haggard’s spell-along tune about a farmer’s loyal hound dog, is followed by the commonsense advice of Buck Owens’ ”If You Can’t Find a Reason to be Happy,” which advises children to look inside themselves sometimes instead of always turning to outside stimuli.
As today’s country-music themes continue to move away from some of the unsavory subject matter of the last three decades (drinking and infidelity pop to mind), children may reclaim at least a portion of the genre, especially since newer performers such as Garth Brooks are helping to draw the youngest audiences country has enjoyed since the Eisenhower era. After all, the first single from the Kentucky Headhunters’ second album was ”The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
Country Music for Kids, while offering a heavier dose of bluegrass instrumentation and arrangements than most country samplers, is an exemplary — and downright fun — introduction to the contemporary country field. And with smart production values and viable songs, the record should appeal to parents — or as they used to say when coonskin caps were in style the first time around, to kids from 8 to 80. A