Getting Folksy

Two eye-opening new albums for the young and the young-at-heart

Bill Staines
The First Million Miles, Volume II
Rounder

So many activities--from improvisational comedy to tennis, from dating to scientific research--have at least as much to do with getting out of one's own way as with the acquisition of exotic new skills. The ability to stop editing one's impulses and to see the world in a truly receptive, unself-conscious way is a rare gift. Two new albums, each featuring a father-figure of sorts, display that delightful ability. The Bear in the Big Blue House contains twenty-four songs from the Disney Channel's Emmy-nominated preschool television series of the same name. Produced by Jim Henson Television, the show features a pair of purple otters named Pip and Pop, an imaginative little girl bear named Ojo, a perpetually frenzied mouse called Tutter, and a toddler Lemur named Treelo. A seven-foot bear--called "Bear"--presides over the menagerie in a jovially avuncular way. All of the animals make an appearance on the recording, and though it might help to be familiar with them through the show before hearing it, they do establish themselves as recognizable characters by the third or fourth song.

There are several musical styles represented here, from the Ray Charles-type piano-based blues of "Need a Little Help Today" to the rollicking gospel-style "Everybody Say Ah" (a physician's number). There is a cha-cha, a samba, and a guitar-driven south-of-the-border ballad, as well as a hilarious hip-hop outing in which Pip and Pop break it down with "Otter Love." Perhaps the funniest thing on the album, "Baby, Baby," is a James Brown-style number complete with undulating horn lines and larger-than-life vocals. Unlike the innumerable love songs with similar names, this one is a zany paean to the messy and unpredictable charms of infants.

As solid as the music is, it's the zaniness that makes this album so much fun. The over-the-top wackiness reminds one of the salad days of the Muppet Show. When Bear sings to the stressed-out, Noo Yawk-accented, Type A Tutter that he ought to "Take Time to Smell the Cheese," one wonders afresh where on earth these people come up with this stuff, and why the mental filters that screen out such weirdness in most people's brains are so happily disabled in theirs.

Country legend Bill Staines is also a keen observer and chronicler of life, though his forte is finding the song in the most prosaic little scenes--his wife asleep in the car next to him as he drives through a "January Snow," or a parrot painted on a tavern wall as he enjoys the "Last Margarita in Monterey." He tackles such unlikely subjects as an expatriate Oklahoman who absolutely loves drilling for oil in the Alaska wilderness, in the Stan Rogers-esque "The Shores of Prudhoe Bay." And he does not disdain to sing of street people and outcasts in "Lovers and Losers," declaring, "I have seen their faces, and I have known their names."

This ability to sing of things as large as a landmark rock formation and as small--in some ways--as the endlessly shifting tide of human life that ebbs and flows in its shadow (in "Stone Face") makes each of Staines's songs unique to a degree unmatched by many other singer-songwriters. His songs, like the folksongs that were uprooted by the recording industry and homogenized into "country music," are always about something. Staines is, in fact--to borrow a metaphor from his haunting ballad "Only a Song"--a tree whose roots are more firmly sunk in the soil of tradition than those of many others. Paradoxically, this rootedness seems to make his work more original than that of those country songwriters who simply cannibalize commercial pop music.

The First Million Miles, Volume II is a compilation of what Staines describes as the first phase of his career as a traveling troubadour. As such, it is diverse in its styles, subject matter, and musical forces--which range from guitar and fiddle to piano-and-string quintet to Caribbean rhythm section complete with steel drums. And no matter how twisted the road, how wrong things turned out, or how much damaged freight had to be hauled on the journey, the outlook is always sagely sunny and imbued with a deep and abiding faith. This sense of a pilgrimage to that "long, last sunny road," taking one's song from the people one meets as much as to them, is summed up the lyric reproduced on the CD's cover:

I took to the road some time ago/To find a friend or two/To tell a tale as best I know/With words and music true/But what I found along the way, and the journey has been long/Is life itself from day to day/and that's become my song.

Scott Robinson is a regular contributor to Minnesota Parent.

 
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