Sean McCollough is a musical artist and popular WDVX Radio show host who will release “Earworm,” his third album of songs for kids and their grownups, on May 11, 2019. With 13 stick-in-your-head original and cover songs, “Earworm” features guests including Billy Jonas, Molly Ledford, members of The Lonetones and the Kidstuff Singers.
Sean McCollough is a fixture in the Appalachian folk and Americana scenes and a University of Tennessee music professor, is well known around Knoxville for his music, radio show and festival presentations. His 2010 album titled “This Is Our House” won a Parents’ Choice Award.
Sean recently discussed his career and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in music and how come you focus on kid’s music?
Sean McCollough (SM): I’ve played music for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents were musical and there was always a piano and guitar in the house. I played in a rock band in high school and dabbled with playing solo in bars in college, but I didn’t really start playing professionally until after college. I’ve always played music for grown-ups as well. I currently play in a band with my wife called The Lonetones. I started playing for kids when my first child was a toddler and friends with kids began asking if I could play at their kids’ schools. It seems I had a knack for it in a folksy, Pete Seeger kind of way, so I kept doing it. I never expected it to become what it has, but I love having it as a part of my life and as one of my musical outlets.
MM: How did you go about securing your first record and how did that lead to other albums being produced?
SM: My high-school band-mate Doug Derryberry (who went on to play with the likes of Bruce Hornsby and the Range and the Sesame Street Band) recorded my first album when I was right out of college. I released it on cassette! I then self-produced a solo singer-songwriter CD and a live children’s album. From there, I have gone on to produce a number of other albums including five for the Lonetones. I have recorded nine albums in my home studio including “Earworm.”
MM: How is “Earworm” different from your other albums?
SM: When I perform live for kids, I include a lot of traditional Appalachian music, and my two previous children’s recordings include some of that. For this record, I chose to include nine originals and covers of more recent songs by people I know (or almost know in the case of “Let’s Give A Party” by Martin, Bogan and Armstrong). There is also more electric guitar and keyboard on this record than on previous releases, though there are still a lot of acoustic sounds as well.
MM: What inspired the songs on your forthcoming album?
SM: I tend to just write songs when they come to me. I know some people are successful with picking a topic and setting out to write a song. But your question is on target because I usually wait for inspiration, and that inspiration usually comes from my life. Sometimes I draw on my own childhood, my own children’s experiences, or things that school kids say to me at my shows. Here’s a little about each original song on the record.
“Earworm” was inspired by a conversation with some kids about the term “earworm” – a term that they thought was quite gross.
“Her Name Was Lady” was inspired by looking through an old photo album with my daughter and remembering how important my goats were to me as a kid.
“Don’t Let ‘Em Get Yer Goat” was inspired by a conversation with a teacher about a student I met at a school who was very interested in music. I learned that despite her own talent, she was seen as an outsider and picked on by other kids. I wrote most of the song on the drive home.
As I prepared to host the Knoxville Opera Company on my Kidstuff radio show, I started thinking about all the different ways that people sing. And “All Kinds of Singing” was born. “ABC” was inspired by performing at a school and talking to kids about songwriting. “Carsick” was inspired by the fact that both I and two of my three kids have suffered from being prone to carsickness. “Green Means Go” was inspired by my late friend and musical partner Phil Pollard. He made up a chant about getting carsick that we used to do with kids using sign language (and I still do). I turned it into a song and was thrilled to get Billy Jonas to play percussion and sing it with me. “Kidstuff,” my radio theme song, is the song that was most deliberate. But it was still written in a moment of inspiration when I got a phone call asking me to host a children’s radio show. I got off the phone, took the dogs for a walk, and wrote it in my head by the time I was back home. “Big Ears” was inspired by a boundary-pushing festival of the same name that we have here in Knoxville. We have started hosting a show on Kidstuff in collaboration with the festival each year called “Big Ears for Little Ears.” The first time we did this, my special guest was Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood. I knew that I needed something new and special for that show, so I wrote “Big Ears” the night before. Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a deadline!
MM: Of all the songs, have you any special favorites?
SM: It’s hard to pick a favorite. They all have a place in my heart for one reason or another. “Earworm” is a crowd favorite across the age span. The little ones love the hand motions and everyone seems to love the “uh ohs.”
MM: How do you plan out your concerts and what can attendees expect from live events?
SM: My shows are a mix of original, traditional and cover songs. I gear them towards the age of the audience, but also keep the adults in mind, trying to play things that they will enjoy too. My concerts are very participatory. I rarely do a song without something for the audience to do. Sometimes it’s a rhythmic pattern to learn (e.g. the end of the chorus on “Her Name Was Lady”), hand motions (e.g. “Earworm”), call and response (e.g. “Let’s Give a Party”) or just singing along on the chorus. I also often pass out rhythm instruments towards the end of the show and have a handful of songs that allow for active participation that is more than just making a bunch of noise.
MM: You work as a WDVX Radio show host, so how did you get into that field and how would you describe the WDVX programming?
SM: After I released my last family record, WDVX approached me about hosting a children’s radio show. WDVX plays a wide array of music. Much of it falls under the umbrella of Americana, but they are fine with me playing world music, rock, soul, and whatever else I think kids will like. My favorite part about WDVX is all of the live music shows that they produce, and Kidstuff is one. I host a live show once a month with special guest. My guests are often local musicians, but I have also hosted the likes of Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Billy Jonas, Molly Ledford, Farmer Jason, Brady Rymer, Jim Gill, Roger Day, and Aaron Nigel Smith.
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