Photography by Whitney Curtis
Families of four are still streaming into Voce, a new downtown nightclub attached to Maurizio’s Pizza, when Grandfather Stark takes the stage. “Would you please welcome…Murder City Players,” he says, rising to a crescendo. Voices and hands both big and small cheer and applaud.
One of St. Louis’ favorite reggae bands for 30 years running, Murder City Players mostly performs 21-and-up shows, but today, at noon on a Saturday in late January, the group is trying something new. This matinee concert for children is part of a monthly series put on by Stark in conjunction with his weekly radio show, Musical Merry-Go-Round, on 88.1 KDHX-FM. This is Stark’s first show in a new location, after years at the rock club Off Broadway, where photos of rockers flipping off the camera gave kids a gleeful sense of being somewhere they didn’t belong. Voce, on the other hand, has cleaner bathrooms and a pizza buffet.
After the introduction, the 10-member band opens with a horn-heavy instrumental, whose foot-tapping beat even a 2-year-old can get behind. A couple of preschoolers standing by the speakers are startled by the first few notes, and it’s clear that for some of these kids, this is their first experience with live music. At first, there is some trepidation, a worried look toward Mom. But soon, any fear is replaced by smiles and laughs.
The crowd runs somewhere between 50 and 100, an accurate head count made impossible by kids running every which way. The children in attendance are mostly in the 3-to-8 age range, and they far outnumber the adults. The bartender alternates between Bloody Mary and Shirley Temple.
Murder City Players hasn’t dumbed down its repertoire, though it did have to condense a bit to fit shorter attention spans. The band worked hard to cram the entire history of Bob Marley into a 45-minute set. The parents here, most seemingly the composting type, dig the music just as much as their offspring do.
Dancing styles among the preschoolers break down by gender. The boys jump from side to side, flail their extremities, spin in circles. The girls travel in packs, whispering in ears and giggling. One little guy, with a blond bowl cut and an orange T-shirt that reads “I love Nana,” walks up to four girls in dresses and leggings and boldly holds their hands.
“There is a lot of falling down at these concerts,” Stark says.
At one of the first shows he put on, Stark turned to the bartender and said, “This is just like Saturday night. These guys can’t stand up.”
“Yeah,” she replied, “and I think that one crapped his pants.”
Grandfather Stark is a wise man. As evidence, consider the fact that his alter ego, Paul Stark, skipped right over the messy business of parenting and went straight to the joy of grandparenthood.
Life took some difficult twists and turns along the way: His first wife died when they were in their twenties, and his second left to become a teacher at a one-room school in an Alaskan whaling village. But his third, “the keeper,” came with three adult children, all of whom have kids of their own. “I got the cool job of becoming grandpa, without having the stresses of my own kids,” he says. “I’m pretty lucky.”
A slender 53-year-old with short white hair and a beard, gentle hazel eyes, and black-framed Ray-Ban glasses, Stark grew up in Fairview Heights, Ill. He moved away a couple of times, but came back to St. Louis in the early ’90s.
A big ska fan, Stark started listening to Ska’s the Limit on KDHX and quickly realized that the hosts were “just playing the same dumb records over and over and over again.” So he started feeding them material. Within a week, they asked him to join the show. Within a year, he had taken it over completely.
Stark credits his granddaughter Rylee, who is now 11, with his switch to family music. Even before she was born, he was looking for stuff to play for her. “I was looking for things to prevent her getting caught up in the commercial music that’s forced on children,” he says, “which is some pretty dumb stuff.”
At about that same time, a new genre was forming, sometimes referred to as kindie music—indie music for kids. Thoughtful musicians were making records that a family could listen to on the way to soccer practice. “Mom can get caught listening to it in the car after she’s dropped the kids off,” Stark says.
When he realized that only a few independent stations around the country were playing kindie music, he decided to pitch the concept for a family show to KDHX. It took the station a year or two to make room in the schedule, which gave Stark plenty of time to gather material. It didn’t take him long to make connections. “It’s a relatively small pond, “ he says, “but I know most of the fish in it.”
Musical Merry-Go-Round premiered in August 2008. It airs on Saturday mornings from 7 to 9 a.m. As Stark sees it, every radio show needs a message. “It can be ‘Get high and listen to the Grateful Dead,’ but you’ve got to have some kind of message,” he says. Grandfather Stark’s simple concept is “Don’t be a jerk.” That means, “Pick up your trash. Be kind to your siblings… Respect your parents. Make your bed. Brush your teeth.”
On an early show, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, one of Stark’s boyhood heroes, came on as a musical guest. He gave Stark a piece of advice: “If you’re going to play these songs, you’ve got to live these songs, too.” So Stark upped his recycling and gave up his car in favor of public transit. “If I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk—or ride the train,” he says.
He’s aiming his message at “single-digit” children, without forgetting Mom and Dad. “Grandfather Stark is talking to somebody who’s 3 to 8 years old, fully aware that standing right behind them is their parents,” he says.
The show has also attracted some fans that Stark didn’t expect. On weeknights, he works the door at Off Broadway. Occasionally, when he asks for ID, a person’s eyes will light up, recognizing the voice. “I don’t really care for kids,” the guy will say, “but I’m usually just getting home at 7 on Saturday morning, and your show rocks. It’s very comforting to pass out with this calming voice playing these happy songs.”
On a more touching note, older folks whose kids are grown or live far away often write to Grandfather Stark, saying that his show fills a void. That’s “a sweet thing,” he says.
Musical Merry-Go-Round follows a simple, consistent format. It always opens, appropriately, with a tune called “Get Up Up Up” by Farmer Jason, the kindie persona of Jason Ringenberg of the country-rock band Jason & the Scorchers.
Grandfather Stark loves songs that are metaphorical. One of his favorite artists, Justin Roberts, has one called “Gym Class Parachute,” an ode to the physical-education activity that gets kids to stop competing and start cooperating. The Okee Dokee Brothers just won a Grammy Award for an album called Can You Canoe? that they wrote while paddling down the Mississippi River. And a band called The Boogers answers the question “What if the Ramones played music for kids?”
In the first hour of the show, Grandfather Stark chats with Ms. Kathleen, a local librarian who promotes the joy of reading. And in the second hour, a musical guest performs in the studio. Stark also mixes in a few songs for the parents. He plays some of the activist songs that he grew up with—from artists like Peter, Paul and Mary or Woody Guthrie, for instance—which fit nicely with the show’s self-proclaimed “leftist ideology.”
And just about every show ends with another tip of the hat to adult listeners: Pete Seeger’s “Be Kind to Your Parents.”
“Treat them with patience and kind understanding, in spite of the foolish things they do,” Seeger concludes. “Someday you might wake up and find you’re a parent, too.”