Sharing music with your kids can be tricky. If you’re a walking-Portlandia cliche like myself, you might desperately want your kids to only listen to “good” music, which means avoiding Dinosaur Train ballads at all costs. But this isn’t always possible. There’s blood in the water and the baby sharks can smell it. For every excellent Raffi jam there’s a nauseating Peppa Pig standard. So, if you, like me, prefer ELO over Elmo, you’ve got to make some intelligent compromises with the kid.
Enter the album that my daughter and I both adore, 1981’s Sesame Country.
I should add up top that I do not particularly like country music or Sesame Street. I’m not saying either of these things are bad in the way The Wiggles are bad, but that they aren’t generally to my taste. I dislike manic energy and listening to Murray Monster discuss his lamb feels like getting cornered at a party by a cokehead. And as for the country stuff, it’s fine. I’m from out west (if Arizona counts) and I like Dolly and Kenny, and there are three Kacey Musgraves albums on vinyl in my house, but one of those is a Christmas Album, and I don’t think Golden Hour really counts.
That’s a long way of saying I’m a less than ideal audience for Sesame Country. Yet here I am, the biggest of big-time fans.
Sesame Country is not only one of the greatest children’s albums of all time, but perhaps one of the greatest live albums of all time, period. This album is so good that I’m actually shocked it exists. Even great children’s concept albums always tend to have at least one fatal flaw, but with Sesame Country I can’t find it. Here’s what listening to it is like.
Sesame Country is a jamboree hosted by Big Bird and starring the usual suspects: Grover, the Count, Burt and Ernie, and, somewhat more memorably, Oscar the Grouch. Each of these Sesame Street characters duets with a country music star. Big Bird signs with Crystal Gale, the Count sings with Loretta Lynn, and, best of all, Oscar sings “Keep on Smilin'” with Glen Campbell. I may not like puppetry or country or that kind of pageantry generally, but you’d have to be dead not to want to sing along.
Here’s why this song is brilliant: Oscar the Grouch is obviously opposed to the idea of a song called “Keep on Smilin'” and so, counters Glen Campbell with a chorus called “Keep on Frowning.” This works not only because Oscar has chops but because it plays off what makes country so compelling to so many people, namely that it’s just a bunch depressing shit sung in clever, upbeat ways. (Have you listened to the lyrics of “The Gambler” lately?) The tension in the song makes it funny and profound and deeply human in a way that toddlers and adults can both appreciate. “Keep on Smilin'” doesn’t tell kids they have to actually keep smiling, it tells them it’s okay to be a Grouch sometimes.
Also, Glen Campbell is a legend for a reason.
An Oscar the Grouch connoisseur might point out that this is nothing new. The whole point of Oscar is that he’s negative, and allows kids to see what happens when you’re negative all the time. However, I’d argue, in the context of crashing a song called “Keep on Smilin'” what Oscar the Grouch does is more subversive, and thus, more honest. He’s singing with Campbell and also making fun of him. Oscar the Grouch is the city slicker who goes country but brings his jaded outlook with him. He is too savvy for the artifice of mass-market country music.
He’s not just getting kids to sing along; he’s teaching them to listen.
This kind of city mouse versus country mouse thing plays out again when Big Bird sings “You Can’t Take the Texas Out of Me” with Tayna Tucker. I really do wish you could take the Texas — or whatever that thing is– out of a lot of people. But, then again, life gets dull if everyone is the same. Big Bird and Tucker’s rendition neither paints the city as somehow inauthentic or Texas as somehow less than. There’s a sense of inclusion and intelligence. Also, the song is catchy as hell and I love it when Tucker laughs at Big Bird’s jokes.
To be clear, Sesame Country is not a particular “woke” or informative kids’ album. This isn’t how you build up little Timmy’s EQ, but it’s fun and that’s enough. I snagged a copy of this baby on vinyl, but if that’s not your thing, I’ve got good news. The Sesame Street people were smart enough to make this one available for digital download, so it’s easy to find on iTunes or whatever you’re using. (The whole album is also on YouTube.)
All the songs are good. But fair warning, my toddler doesn’t’ like “The Last Cookie Roundup,” because she says it’s “too slow.” She wants the songs that make her want to get-up and dance. She’s almost 3-years-old and she’s never seen what partner dancing looks like, but just the tune of “Sesame Jamboree,” made her grab my hands and start swinging around like a pro.
With Grover is jamming on a fiddle my daughter dancing arm-in-arm with my across the living room, what else could I want? What could be better?