The phrase "resists easy categorization" is an overused cliche for describing an artist with an eclectic sound. Yet the term makes sense when talking about Trout Fishing in America. After all, even this duo of Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet struggles sometimes to define the music they create. In various interviews they've used catchphrases such as "acid vaudeville," "general practitioners" and "multidimensional." And, while helpful, those descriptions are always spoken with a touch of sarcasm.
In a recent interview, the band settled for the words "Trout music," which is certainly easier to say than the kind of multiword, multihyphenated description necessary to encompass all the styles making up the Trout Fishing in America musical experience.
"It's not just that we're trying to think of the weirdest things we can to put into the music," says Grimwood. "It really makes sense. And it makes sense when you listen to it. You won't be able to tell what kind of music it is. It's 'Trout music.' "
The unique characteristics of Trout Fishing go beyond describing song styles. For starters, there's the physical appearance of the twosome. Idlet, at six-feet-nine, towers over Grimwood, who tops out at five-feet-five-and-a-half-inches tall.
The instrumentation also makes Trout Fishing in America hard to pin down. The predominant format is acoustic, with bassist Grimwood and guitarist Idlet generating a good deal of volume and momentum for having just two instruments. But the duo doesn't hesitate to bring in a rhythm section on records for songs that require a bit more muscle. As such, any easy categorizing as folk goes out the window. And the elements of rock, blues, jazz, world beat, reggae and other styles that filter into the mix only further frustrate those who like music neatly packaged.
Speaking of packaging, Trout Fishing is one of the few groups that can truly say it has an all-age audience. Since 1977 Grimwood and Idlet not only have played concerts for adults in bars and other venues, but they also have put on shows for kids, their parents and their teachers at schools and other like facilities.
The Trout Fishing catalog reflects this reality, with four studio CDs -- Reel Life, Who Are These People? Over the Limit and Truth Is Stranger Than Fishing -- that feature adult music and three -- My World, Mine! and Big Trouble -- that focus on children's. The group's most recent release, Family Music Party, though, is the first Trout release to blend both worlds. This 16-track live album was drawn from a television concert on PBS in 1998 and reflects just how successfully Grimwood and Idlet skip over, around and through musical categories.
"This is the first time we've really tried to mix it up and just shake it up and put it all on one CD," Grimwood says of the album, which was recorded on the Austin City Limits soundstage. "That's why it's called Family Music Party. So often our shows just cross right over age generations."
Because Family Music Party includes material drawn from both the children's and adults' repertoires of Trout Fishing, it provides perhaps the best snapshot of the many facets of the group's music. Its songs cover everything from rambling folk ("My World") to rock ("I Can Dance") to country ("11 Easy Steps") to tango ("Mine!) and a few stops in between. Family Music Party does lean a bit more heavily on silly humor than does the typical adult-oriented album or show, but the record nicely captures the witty banter and interactive atmosphere Grimwood and Idlet foster live.
That said, Family Music Party is the rare kids-oriented CD that a parent will like. Part of this universal appeal stems from the approach Grimwood and Idlet take to performing for kids.
Unlike many children's performers, Grimwood and Idlet don't speak down to the audience. There's plenty of sophisticated humor in songs such as "What I Want Is a Proper Cup of Coffee" (one of the nuttiest sing-alongs ever) and "The Window" (which cleverly alters the story lines of a variety of famous nursery rhymes). At the same time, such songs are so clearly presented that the lyrics don't go over any youngster's head.
There are also a few ballads drawn from the adult repertoire -- "Count on Me," "Lullaby" and "No Matter What Goes Right" -- that illustrate the more serious and sensitive side of Trout Fishing in America.
Grimwood and Idlet also don't worry about blending educational or moral lessons into their songs; instead, they let a spirit of fun carry their music along. This, in itself, differentiates them from other children's performers.
"I remember we did an interview for a kids radio station," the taller, Idlet, says. "And the big question the woman had to ask us at the end of the interview was 'Do you have a message for the children of the community?' "
" 'A message, what message?' " the littler, Grimwood, says, picking up the story. "They keep wanting your song to teach them how to do something, like how to brush their teeth or make lunch. But they keep wanting these messages. And I've got to tell you, when that lady asked us that question, we kind of just sat there and stared at her. We didn't know what to say because our music isn't very message-oriented. Then Ezra finally leaned over the microphone and he said, 'Uh, have a good time and enjoy your life.' That was his message to the kids of the city. She was disappointed it wasn't something more specific, like, you know, goal-oriented."
Another distinguishing characteristic of Trout Fishing's music -- even on their children's albums -- is the quality of the musicianship. The songs "Pico de Gallo" and "Mine!," two of several full-band songs on Family Music Party, leave plenty of room for soloing and interplay among acoustic guitar, violin, steel guitar and mandolin.
"I remember as a kid listening to classical music, listening to jazz, listening to rock and roll, listening to blues, Tejano music, all kinds of stuff, and it was normal," guitarist Idlet says. "I was a kid, and I didn't have to listen to 'Lambchop Sings the Blues' or stuff like that, a sugar-coated version of real music. Real music is important in a person's development."
Clearly Grimwood and Idlet feel no obligation to play by the rules when it comes to music and their audiences. But then, that's something one might expect from two musicians who took anything but a conventional path in building their career.
It all began in 1976 when Grimwood joined a Houston-based quintet called St. Elmo's Fire after a labor dispute interrupted his job with the Houston Symphony. Idlet was in the band, and the two became fast friends.
A year later, a tour of California fell through, prompting the band members to temporarily go their separate ways. Grimwood and Idlet stayed in California and began busking as a duo. As musicians and people they clicked, and the seeds for Trout Fishing were sown. A couple of years later, St. Elmo's Fire finally called it a day, clearing the way for Trout Fishing in America to become a full-time pursuit. But where the former band had sought desperately to fit into the music mainstream, Grimwood and Idlet -- as Trout Fishing in America -- decided to swim against the tide.
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"So much of what the other band did was toward realizing the goal [of being the next big thing]," Idlet says. "Keith and I, when we split up, we decided to make the getting there the thing, not the actual realization of the dream, but to live, to play toward the thing that you're doing. The reason that we do it is because we love it, not because we might get a record contract. It's not because we might become millionaires or because we might become stars. We play music because we love it. We write music because it fires us up. And it taps into something that is crucial to both of us."
Together they followed their songwriting inspirations, no matter how musically diverse. Trout Fishing in America also built its career without the help of a record contract or other conventional marketing machinery. To this day, all eight CDs are still available only on Trout Records, even though Grimwood and Idlet have been approached from time to time by record labels interested in signing the band.
"We're in a position where it doesn't matter," Idlet says with justifiable pride. "We can and will release our own records. We have a very functional record label here, and if [record labels] eventually do come up with something that's worth doing, then we'll do it. But until that point, there's no reason to do anything else but what we're doing."
Trout Fishing in America performs Friday, March 26, at 8 p.m. at Pershing Middle School, 7000 Braes Boulevard.