Like a toddler with a leaky sippy cup, Dan Zanes casually dribbles a trail of notable names wherever he roams. For a decade, he’s been a family-music scion, buoyed by connections he made while leading thinking-man’s bar-rock band The Del Fuegos in the ’80s.
From folk and country heirs (Loudon Wainwright III, Roseanne Cash) to A-listers (Sheryl Crow, Matthew Broderick) to blues institutions (Blind Boys of Alabama, at Lincoln Center no less), an impressive list of stars have hopped Zanes’ train. His famous admirers have performed with him live and contributed tracks to a series of eight albums that most recently includes 76 Trombones, pared-down versions of Broadway show tunes. The nearly 90-year-old Carol Channing, her voice as brittle as the hair of a Malibu Barbie, duets on her signature song “Hello, Dolly!” from the same-named musical; Broderick guest stars on “Before the Parade Passes By,” also from that show.
Absent the bombast, these theatrical anthems (culled from a music-publishing catalogue owned by Paul McCartney) make ideal fodder for kids’ music, and particularly for Zanes’ signature treatment — a tattered lo-fi charm juiced up with virtuosic flourishes from his smiley, zany-instrument-wielding back-up band.
Few lyrics could be more roots-up innocent than those of the CD’s title track, from The Music Man: “Seventy-six trombones led the big parade / with a hundred-and-ten cornets right behind / …there were more than a thousand reeds springing up like weeds / there were horns of every shape and kind.” And these pert words from the Peter Pan theme song are as appealing today as they ever were: “I won’t grow up / I don’t want to wear a tie / or a serious expression / in the middle of July.”
Still, Zanes admits he was a little balky going into the project. Speaking to Xpress through jittery cell reception while on vacation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Grammy winner sounds modest and vaguely astonished on the other end of the line.
“It was kind of a hard decision,” he says. “I’ve never been in love with Broadway music, and I didn’t want it to sound too weird and showy. When I got the list of songs, there weren’t more than two or three on there that I knew.” To keep it fresh, Zanes decided not to even listen to the originals; instead, he and his band studied the sheet music and adapted the lyrics to their own oeuvre. “It ended up being a great experience,” he says. “It got me much more in tune with the craft of songwriting.”
Nevertheless, he sounds eager to get back to creating-as-usual, noting with a laugh, “there won’t be a Volume II [of Broadway covers] for me in this lifetime.” Zanes’ everyday ambitions include building a body of work that he firmly bills as family music, rather than kids’ music — a discography that covers traditional folk, jazz standards, old country blues and mild reggae. “Children’s music is particular to children’s experiences, and with all-ages music, everybody can get some kind of emotional connection, from young kids to grandparents,” he explains. “These songs are a bit more universal. Hopefully, they’re songs you can grow up with.”
As much as he believes that music should be integrated into everyday life, Zanes won’t dismiss such franchises as Kindermusik, a rather pricey “mommy-and-me”-type program that introduces children to singing and movement using nursery rhymes and easy percussion. “Music used to be a more daily experience for Americans, and then with [the advent of recording], we became consumers instead of participants,” he says. “Music making is something we’ve lost along the way, and that’s where these programs can help. If the adults can come away from them knowing more about music, then the kids may be exposed to it more in their own homes.”
Truth is, the singer has fashioned an as-yet-unnamed program of his own; now in its second year, the project is geared solely toward children with developmental disabilities. Another beloved endeavor is soap-boxing for Heifer International, the popular nonprofit that promotes agricultural self-sufficiency in the world’s poorest places.
Just as he doesn’t mind calling on celebrity friends to ornament his musical schemes, Zanes sees no problem wearing the double-brimmed hat of singer/activist. In fact, it’s no less than perceived duty that drives him.
“When you become a parent, you begin to see the world differently, and I always figured family music called for some kind of social responsibility,” he says, citing other family-music singers (Raffi, Tom Chapin) who promote various causes. “Once you’ve got that platform going, it’s natural and important to find good, positive ways to use it. Certainly I’m only scratching the surface of what it means to be a good citizen.”
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a lifestyle writer and editor based in Asheville.]
who: Dan Zanes and friends
what: Music for the whole family
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Aug. 14 (2 p.m. $18/flat (family discount available). 225-5851. theorangepeel.net)