Trout Fishing In America at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), tonight (Thursday, August 18), 8:30 pm. $18. 416-531-6604, www.hughsroom.com. Rating: NNNNN
Turns out Richard Brautigan's 1967 novel, Trout Fishing In America, isn't about fishing at all. It's the name of the, er, title character who travels across the U.S. on a quest for enlightenment. It garnered Brautigan quite a bit of acclaim within the counterculture of the time, and he was tauted as the next Mark Twain.
Anglers fooled by the title have accused the publishers of false advertising, but two Southern boys decided it was the perfect name for what became a terrific band targeting kids and families.
It made sense, especially since the two young guys plucked native roots music with an acute sense of the absurd, reflected in some brilliantly humorous lyrics, and they were both on a country-wide search for some kind of Zen enlightenment that had nothing to do with fish.
When I hook up with bassist/singer Keith Grimwood and guitarist/singer Ezra Idlet via phone, Grimwood notes that things used to be very different.
"When we started playing together in the late 70s, I was writing these very sad, depressing songs. We had no money and had resorted to busking, but no one gave us any money.
"Ezra figured we should try doing some more upbeat, happy songs and see what happened. That made us realize that if people hear dark, introspective songs they tend to walk away fast. But if you sing about happier stuff they usually hang around and empty their pockets."
Think about kids' music and what comes to mind? More than likely, excruciatingly long car rides, three-chord lullabies, two-syllable lyrics, melodies that all seem to be only slight variations on It's A Small World, and a whole lot of Raffi, Barney and Sharon, Lois and Bram.
Now think of kids' music done by a couple of guys who are into the beat writers, still wear tie-dyed Ts and are musically talented enough to have guys like Vassar Clements, Tim O'Brien and world dobro sensei Jerry Douglas actually wanting to play on their albums.
Not since Woody Guthrie's Songs To Grow On series has kids' music been this good, and while not every album they make is for children, it's where TFIA have really made their mark.
"Yeah, it was a little strange at first," Idlet says. "Some teachers would come out to our early shows, and when one inquired about how they could go about getting a band like us to play at a school, I told her all she had to do was ask. It took off from there.
"We don't really change our music at all when writing family-type albums. The lyrical content is obviously not like that of our Closer To The Truth album, but at the same time it's quite challenging and fun for the kids and their parents. We don't feel the need to dumb it down just because it's geared toward kids. They're smart enough to know when you do."
Maybe it was the hopeful days of the 60s that instilled their strong sense of community, or maybe they just have a genuine love of people, but both Grimwood and Idlet are much more than musicians. They're philanthropists too.
Winning numerous Parents' Choice and American Library Awards as well as being nominated for two Grammys is swell, but it's their passion for and dedication to developing songwriting workshops for students and teachers that drives them.
"I love it," Grimwood pipes up. "Kids understand instantly and can easily identify with how art and music are part of everyday life, that they mirror our existence. Even the most emotionally touching songs about family life can have an impact on young children, because they are so smart, and despite what a lot of folks think, they can handle them. Once you see a kid latch onto that kind of an idea, you know you've made a difference."
My limited experience with toddlers makes me agree, but I'm guessing they couldn't handle hearing about how the guy TFIA copped their name from offed himself with a .44 to the head back in 1984. Some things are better left unsung.