By Michael Devers
(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)
On an unusually warm evening in early 1983, Ezra Idlet ran into Rod Kennedy on Austin’s Sixth Street. Idlet had played the Kerrville Folk Festival for Kennedy back in 1974 with the Houston-based band Wheatfield. He now performed with Trout Fishing in America (a duo he formed with fellow Wheatfield alum Keith Grimwood), so Idlet handed Kennedy a cassette tape, asking him to listen to it and consider the band for a slot at Kerrville.
“We were given, I think, the coolest spot of the festival,” Idlet recalls. “An hour set, from 5 to 6 p.m., every day of the weekend, which was way more than anyone else got to play. The first day it was hot, and there weren’t that many people. The next day word spread quickly, as it can at Kerrville, and there was a whole lot more people. By the third day, it was just a huge crowd.”
Kennedy had given Idlet’s new act the chance to build a following over a single weekend in Kerrville. They made good on that opportunity and have been back almost every year since, still playing multiple sets over the course of the festival, with one difference. Now those sets are split between the “adult” folk music that makes up the bulk of the festival, and a style of music that has garnered Trout Fishing in America four Grammy nominations: children’s music. The duo stumbled onto the genre by chance.
A mutual friend of Idlet and Grimwood had graduated college and asked the duo to play for her grade-school students as she kicked off her teaching career. “We didn’t know any kids songs,” Idlet recalls, “but we said ‘Sure!’ We brought some acoustic instruments and played some original tunes, some Beatles, other cover tunes, and some blues. Instead of getting paid money, we were given letters. They all wrote us letters in pencil and crayon, and drew pictures of us or of airplanes dive-bombing from the sky — whatever they felt like. The experience was great and we had such a wonderful time, we decided we wanted to do it again.”
Trout Fishing in America (TFIA) stands out amongst other performers of children’s music for two reasons, the most obvious being their physical appearance. A former basketball player, acoustic guitarist Idlet stands 6-foot, 9-inches, while bass player Grimwood checks in at 5-foot-5 inches (and a half). The difference allows children (and their parents) to immediately connect with the duo as “the big one” and “the short one”
The more significant factor that sets TFIA apart from the kid music crowd though — and the one that really accounts for their long-term success (16 albums in the last 20 years with more than 300,000 units sold, all on their own Trout Records label), can be found in their subject matter. While many in the children’s arena feel compelled to sing about what children should do and/or how they should think, Idlet and Grimwood sing songs from a kid’s point of view. “My Hair Had a Party Last Night,” “Day Care Blues,” and “My Pants Fell Down” are all standout examples of their approach.
This year finds the duo releasing their 17th album (due this fall), this one being one of their more adult-oriented offerings. “You wouldn’t give it an ‘R’ rating,” Idlet assures, “but it’s things you would think about as an adult as opposed to things you would think about as a kid.”
It also finds TFIA once again making the annual pilgrimage to the Texas Hill Country. “It’s a reconnection with friends,” says Idlet. “Hanging with those people again, playing the concert, staying in the field with them, eatting the food with them, the whole thing — it’s like being part of a large family. My kids were brought up at the Kerrville Folk Festival and it’s been a big part of their lives as well. It’s a group of people I really treasure.”