Keeping Kids Music Junk-Free: Grandfather Stark on the Wild Ride of the Musical Merry-Go-Round

Grandfather Stark coaxes an encore. - Sara Finke
Sara Finke
Grandfather Stark coaxes an encore.
In the annals of musical genres and styles that compel a desire to do violence to one's ears and eyes and other orifices, the stuff proffered by the likes of the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon -- "family music" to use a misnomer in this case -- has few equals. Kids may love it and consume it in Costco-sized, juice-pack case quantities, but kids also like eating dirt.

Enter the "Musical Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour Saturday morning radio show on 88.1 KDHX (which enlists this writer as a DJ and Web Editor) and its host, Paul "Grandfather" Stark. Stark really is a grandfather and really is on a mission to right the Disney-driven wrongs done to the musical taste and education of otherwise perfectly cool kids and their "Kidz Bop"-suffering parents.

For Stark, who started with KDHX as the new host of "Ska's the Limit" in 1993, family music is the Beatles and Woody Guthrie, Farmer Jason Ringenberg and Dan Zanes, Trout Fishing In America and Ellis Paul, Celia and Wack-A-Doo (both veteran St. Louis artists). In short, it's as catchy, smart, fun and meaningful as the best pop and folk music always is.

Heading into its fifth year on the air, the Musical Merry-Go-Round continued its series of family concerts, previously held at Off Broadway (where Stark remains a regular and debonair doorman), at new venue Voce (212 S. Tucker Boulevard in St. Louis) over the weekend. The 2013 season kicked off with a well-attended (over 100 patrons, young and old) performance on Saturday by the Murder City Players. It continues from March through May with a noteworthy lineup of Mr. Singer and the Sharp Cookies, the Billy Jonas Band and the Boogers (attention pop-punk fans).

I met Stark for lunch to chat about the history of his pioneering radio show and his absolutely all-ages concert series.

Roy Kasten: Tell me about the origins of the Musical Merry-Go-Round.

Paul Stark: It was in the works for two years before I got around to starting the show. It was spurred on by my first local grandchild being born, about 12 years ago, and trying to collect music for her and her parents. I didn't want to subject her to too much junk. I had a need as a grandparent to steer her in the right direction with good music.

By coincidence, at about the same time she was born, there was this new wave of family musicians, many based in Brooklyn. Guys like Dan Zanes were getting the ball rolling. These were musicians who were starting to have their own kids and realized there was a lot of junk music for kids out there. They realized they could write their own stuff and play it for their children.

So I really have to give my unborn granddaughter, Rylee, credit for the show. At the time, there were only five or six shows around the country doing family music. There was satellite radio, but at that time it was kind of junky. Radio Disney was there, but it was just to sell things, not to educate people.

As the show has developed, it's become a very left-leaning show. The songs are about taking care of other people, respecting your parents and your neighbors, picking up the trash, keeping your ears open. So much of the show and the music is about making the world better today.

How did the concert series come about?

That was about a year and a half after being on the radio. I went to Kansas City, where they have Jiggle Jam, a festival with about 18 bands playing. I was really impressed that they could pull it off, right there in the center of the country. I started thinking, "Could we do that in St. Louis? Bring people from New York or LA to do concerts here?" I didn't think we could pull off a festival, so I decided to start at a smaller scale, see if someone from Chicago wanted to come down and do a show.

Now it's turned out to be about one concert a month for three years. The next show will be the 42nd show in the series. It's been fun. The word has gotten out that there's a stop in St. Louis, and tours get designed around passing through here. It's a different situation than traveling bands that play bars late at night. You have to do the show on an afternoon on the weekend; you can't do a 10 p.m. show on a Monday if you want single-digit-aged fans to come see you.

People listen to the radio in different ways, in different contexts, but I have a hard time imagining a single-digit-aged listener actually sitting still for that long and focusing on something that's not visually stimulating. It's just the radio. And what does radio even mean to an eight-year-old?

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