It’s not even officially released yet, but “Earworm,” the latest album by my friend Sean McCollough, is already an award winner.
Last week, the National Parenting Product Awards named “Earworm,” which McCollough will celebrate with a release party on Saturday morning as part of his monthly “Kidstuff Live” concert series and a Best Children’s Music Award. It’s not his first foray into the realm of songs for young people: “This Is Our House” was released in 2010, and a year later, he launched the “Kidstuff” program on WDVX-FM.
On the second Saturday of each month, “Kidstuff” is broadcast live from the same stage in the downtown Knoxville Visitors Center as the WDVX “Blue Plate Special,” and while most live shows feature guest musicians, this week’s spotlight will shine entirely on the host.
While it’ll certainly be a party, McCollough told me this week, it’ll also be slightly pared down — because next weekend, he’s bringing a full band to the Children’s Festival of Reading, an all-day event at World’s Fair Park.
“I think that for sure that (local multi-instrumentalist) Kyle Campbell is playing with me, and Matt Nelson is going to join me on bass, and I’m hoping to get Steph (Gunnoe, his wife) up there to sing some, too,” he said. “Next weekend, I’ll bring a full band with drums, bass, keyboards. That one will be a little more rocking, while this week’s will be a little folkier.”
McCollough can move comfortably between those distinctive sounds. His first children’s album was a solo effort, and “This Is Our House,” credited to Sean McCollough and Friends, was a pastiche of 10 traditional songs and five originals. The key to making successful children’s music, he said, is to approach it from a place of authenticity.
“I think I kind of came out of the Pete Seeger model of playing kids music,” he said. “That’s still a fantastic model, and I still borrow from that heavily. I tried really hard on this record and in the past to record music that’s just good music: well produced, well played and songs that don’t talk down to kids, but that kids can still relate to thematically.”
In fact, he added, he put as much work into “Earworm” as he does on the albums he makes with Gunnoe as the “Appalachian rock ‘n’ roll” band The LoneTones. There are no shortcuts just because it’s a children’s record, and he never looks at the songs he collects as novelties. If anything, working with respected local, regional and national performers of children’s material through “Kidstuff” helped him to shape some of those tunes.
“Both Molly Ledford (who guests on “Sunsphere”) and Billy Jonas (a guest on “Green Means Go”) are pretty well-known children’s artists, and they’ve both been on my radio show, and I’ve gotten to know them through that,” he said. “They were both really happy to help. Molly’s song, in fact, had never been recorded before. She wrote it for a gig in Knoxville at the World’s Fair Park, and because it’s so geographically specific, she may have never recorded it. So I approached her, asked her if I could record it and, oh by the way, can you come sing on it? And she did.”
He credits his rhythm section with helping turn the songs into their final versions. Vince Ilagan and Jamie Cook are familiar names in the Knoxville music scene, and the grooves they created to anchor each song helped to give them the buoyancy and bounce that make for engaging and enthusiastic tunes — perfect to please the aural palate of younger listeners.
“We had a lot of fun making it, and we’ve been pleased by the reception so far — especially from kids, because the reviews don’t matter if the kids don’t like it!” he said. “(The title track) is a favorite, and I think it’s partially because there are lots of ways to participate when I play it live. I have hand motions for the lines ‘squirmy worm’ and ‘wiggly worm,’ and everybody, including the grownups, seems to enjoy the ‘uh-ohs!’ in it. It’s become a little bit of a crowd favorite, and kids always like the ones where they can really participate.
“Even some that you might not think work really well live end up going over well, like ‘ABC (The Writing Song).’ It’s about the joys of writing, and because the kids are usually that age where they’re learning or already know their ABCs, they know the words and sing along, even though the melody is weird and different.”
Different is what makes McCollough’s contributions to the vibrant scene such a joy to listen to. This summer, he and Steph will gather the rest of The LoneTones (who will perform Saturday at Vestival in South Knoxville, after the “Kidstuff” release show) to record that band’s next record, but in the meantime, “Earworm” is a fantastic addition to any family’s playlist — as is a live radio show on the second Saturday of each month, when you can see Sean and others perform regularly.