All hail Justin Roberts

With all due respect to Greg Brown and the Everly Brothers, I doubt that Iowa has ever produced a better songwriter than Justin Roberts.

The Des Moines native is coming back to town for a concert this weekend, and whether or not you can attend, I encourage all parents, grandparents and friends of parents to get to know his music.

This Associated Press feature named Roberts “a rising star in kids’ music”:

In less than a decade he’s gone from playing for a few people in a maternity shop to a few thousand in big-city pavilions and concert halls. And he’s done it in a way that’s increasingly popular: entertaining children without dressing like a purple dinosaur or singing songs that drive parents crazy.

“It’s not like a lot of kid music that’s almost unbearable for an adult to listen to,” said Lee Berger, sitting at a recent show in suburban Chicago with his wife and two small children. “It’s actually good music, and then they like it as well.”

How good? I sometimes listen to this music in the car even when my kids are not with me. It’s not dumbed down, and he writes songs in a variety of styles. On just one album, you can hear the 80s-style pop song “Meltdown” (“I’d stop the world and meltdown with you”), the Beatles-esque “Imaginary Rhino,” a country-ish tune about “Taking Off My Training Wheels” and echoes of Paul Simon in South Africa on “More Than Just a Minute.”

The AP writer notes that adults as well as kids can relate to Roberts’ lyrics, because they touch on universal joys, fears and family dynamics. Some songs put a twist on familiar tales; Humpty Dumpty isn’t a careless idiot, he’s a visionary who keeps climbing that wall to see the amazing view.

Instead of telling kids not to be scared of the monster under the bed because there is no such thing as a monster under a bed, Roberts empathizes with the monster. He might be hungry, missing his monster mom and dad, or scared of the child who seems like “a monster without fur.”

There are also some jokes just for the grown-ups, like phrases from classic Bob Dylan songs in the Dylan-like “Henrietta’s Hair.”

I am particularly fond of the lyrics on “Why Not Sea Monsters?”, an album of songs about the Hebrew Scriptures. Roberts has a funny way of conveying the essence of these stories, whether it’s Moses talking to the burning bush or the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers. (There is also a companion “Why Not Sea Monsters?” album with songs about the New Testament.)

I mentioned in my calendar of this week’s events that Roberts and his band (the Not Ready for Naptime Players) will play a free concert this Sunday, September 7, at 3:00 pm on the west lawn of the Botanical Center in Des Moines. Information about upcoming shows can be found here. You won’t be disappointed, whether Roberts brings along his full band or only the very talented Liam Davis (also his producer).

I wish I could find some footage from a concert on YouTube, because you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bunch of kids go wild to “D-O-G,” “Day Camp” or “Cartwheels and Somersaults.”

Roberts keeps the audience engaged by encouraging kids to make a particular gesture repeatedly during each song. This is a classic trick of storytelling. Even a pre-verbal toddler who can’t sing along enjoys copying the motions.

For months before he was able to talk, my younger son would put his arm up in the air at the beginning of “I Chalk,” ready to make a big sidewalk chalk circle during the chorus. He tried so hard to point his fingers in the air during the “one by one by one by one” refrain of “Billy the Bully.”

Bring extra money if you do go to a Justin Roberts concert, because chances are you’ll want to buy a CD or two to take home. Depending on where you live, you may not find any of his music in stores, but his albums are available here. We like them all, but our favorites are probably “Meltdown,” “Pop Fly,” “Way Out” and “Not Naptime.”

Four videos can be found on the official Justin Roberts website. To brighten your weekend, I leave you with the title song of his latest album, “Pop Fly.” Not only do my boys love it, that track went all the way to number one on XMKIDS radio:

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