Release Day Review: Coal Train Railroad Swings!

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I didn’t know it, but I loved jazz when I was a kid. I was a huge fan of the Vince Guaraldi trio. I didn’t know that either. I only knew that the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of the best things I had ever heard. It was a risky move to pair grown-up jazz music with an animated children’s show in 1965; it would be a risky move now, in the era of Thundercats and Sponge Bob Squarepants. But the Charlie Brown specials have always made it seem that jazz for kids is the most natural thing in the world.

The jazz combo Coal Train Railroad–Katy Bowser, Chris Donohue, and a rotating cast of exceedingly talented instrumentalists–works on that very assumption, that jazz is great music for kids. More to the point, they demonstrate that jazz and kids are a natural combination. Their new record, Coal Train Railroad Swings, releases today. Musically, this is the real deal. Inspired by traditional swing jazz and seasoned with a dash of polka and a little bit of Tom Waits, the musicianship is stellar. Katy Bowser’s vocals are a miracle–expressive and very fun, but also technically astonishing. She performs a vocal run at the end of “Get My Wiggles Out” that is positively pyrotechnic. One wonders if she could possibly do it the same way twice.

That’s Coal Train Railroad Swings! for you: genuine virtuosity in the service of a song about getting one’s wiggles out. The same virtuosity is exercised in songs about going to the pool, leaving a lunch bag out in the rain, suffering from the common cold (“I Hab a Code”), and getting dirty (of dirt, Katy asks, “What am I supposed to do? This stuff is everywhere!”).

The subject matter is perfectly relevant to the toddler set, but there is no condescension here. I have heard Katy Bowser speak of “inviting children into the conversation” with her art. To put it another way, Coal Train Railroad says to kids, “Jazz is your music too.” Indeed, in many ways, children are more ready for jazz than adults. For a baby learning to speak, talking is a lot like scat-singing. A baby plays with the sounds and rhythms of words before he knows exactly what to do with their meanings. Katy tells of her baby daughter Story’s ongoing riffs on the words “broccoli” (“bockly”) and “book,” repeating them over and over with different intonations and pronunciations and cadences.

The great revelation of Coal Train Railroad’s music is that jazz, which seems urbane, highbrow, and frankly intimidating to many grownups, can be entirely accessible. I don’t even own a turtleneck, but still I love this music. Watching my own children enjoy Coal Train Railroad Swings! has reminded me that jazz, that great American form, is my music too.

[Here’s the first track from the record, in which a girl in Wonder Woman Underoos and a boy with inflatable Hulk muscles do battle with Godzilla and a toothy cow. The album is available in the Rabbit Room store.]

I’m Diggin’ Me
by Coal Train Railroad

[audio:DigginMe.mp3]

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


9 Comments

  1. LauraP

    I can’t believe you don’t own a turtleneck. However, having heard Katy sing at Hutchmoot this year, I CAN attest to the veracity of the rest of this post.

  2. Kirsten

    We’re SO excited to play this album for our 7-month-old. I only wish Coal Train Railroad had been around when I was a kid!

  3. Charles Atkinson

    This is wonderful! Great point about children being more attuned to the spontaneity and delight of jazz than adults.

    Speaking of virtuosic and accessible jazz albums, Wynton Marsalis’ “Christmas Jazz Jam,” which he released the last year, adds New Orleans’ swing and stomp to Christmas favorites. I just bought it last week and it has been a most joyous advent. Basically, if the Incarnation took place down in the Bayou, it would’ve sounded like this:

    Cheers,
    Charles

  4. euphrony

    I love there first album, and so do my kids – always fun to sing about bellybuttons! I participated in their Kickstarter project earlier this year and got a personalized version of “Happy Birthday” for my son’s 4th birthday in February. My daughter (who is eight) is still jealous!

  5. Goodgame

    Yea!!! My family rejoices. A new Coal Train Railroad CD is a sweet gift to families everywhere. Can’t wait to hear it the rest. Great review, JR.

  6. Loren

    Awesome review. I definitely need to look into this! After all, I’ve been happily spreading the Slugs & Bugs virus to all the young moms in my circle. I’d love to give them another healthy bug 🙂 .

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