Kids rock out to their own tunes in Kansas City’s kindie music scene

It’s easy to get up and moving to “The Hokey-Pokey” as performed by Funky Mama Krista Eyler in Leawood’s Lodge at Ironwoods Park.
It’s easy to get up and moving to “The Hokey-Pokey” as performed by Funky Mama Krista Eyler in Leawood’s Lodge at Ironwoods Park. Staff

It was a Friday night at the Record Bar on Westport Road in Kansas City, and fans were packed in like sardines waiting for the show to begin.

Half-drunk glasses of beer and pizza were strewn across black wood high-top tables. Along the walls, record albums from bands like the Lemonheads and the Jesus Lizard served as an alternative to wallpaper.

Later that night, Various Blonde, a band that’s been described as having a dark, alternative, progressive style, would take the stage. But the first show of the night belonged to four men wearing matching red bowling shirts who had hits like “Eli’s a Cowboy” and “Peanut Butter in My Ear.”

The Doo-Dads were playing for a different sort of crowd than the bar usually sees on a busy weekend night. Most of their fans had yet to graduate from grade school.

Heading to the bar on a Friday night with my 4-year-old daughter in tow had initially felt a little wrong. But after the first few notes of the band’s surf rock-tinged songs rang out and children of all ages rushed to the front of the stage, chasing bubbles, dancing and clapping as the loud music filled the air, I saw the beauty of the venue: It was the perfect blend of adult and children’s entertainment.

“It’s like a regular rock concert for little kids but instead of smoke machines, we have bubbles,” Mike Niewald of Overland Park, the band’s guitarist and lead singer, told me.

By the end of the night, my daughter, Brynn, was standing on the stage directly in front of Niewald, completely mesmerized.

It was our first foray into Kansas City’s renowned kindie music scene — performers who write and sing specifically for children. But after hearing that Jiggle Jam, a children’s music festival that had been held each year in Kansas City since 2008, was taking an extended nap this year, I wondered whether I was learning about the scene just as the industry was starting to struggle.

The artists in the local kindie scene, however, tell me this isn’t the case. Their schedules are packed with summer concerts at venues across Kansas City, whether it’s at parks, libraries, outdoor theaters or — well, even the occasional bar.

“I personally at the ground level have not seen any slowdown in work,” said Dino O’Dell, known offstage as Kevin Dolan. “As a matter of fact, I keep getting more and more work, so it’s just kind of slowly growing every year.”

Last year he logged 183 shows nationally.

Jim Cosgrove, also known as Mr. Stinky Feet, said Jiggle Jam was placed on an indefinite hold as he and other organizers try to find a way to revamp the festival to appeal to the entire family, not just its youngest members.

“It served that market well, but what we found was that we kind of plateaued as far as our reach,” said Cosgrove, who lives in Mission. “Every year we had some weather issues, too.”

While it’s true that several artists have slowed down the number of shows they do each year, new acts continue to enter the scene, keeping an eclectic mix of homegrown musicians steadily performing throughout the community.

Over the last several decades, Kansas City has become a unique incubator for youth-focused musicians. Veterans in the business have served as mentors for newer acts. Many of the well-known performers collaborate on other artists’ albums, and they recommend one another for jobs.

“We really have worked hard to create a scene here and have gone out of our way to nurture a scene and encourage new artists that come up,” Cosgrove said. “This is a big family.”

After Krista Eyler, who performs under the name Funky Mama, began her career 10 years ago, she said the first note she got was from Cosgrove and his wife, Jeni, welcoming her to the community.

“In Kansas City, we really try to promote each other’s work. We try to be available to each other,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a sense of competition.”

The philosophy is that there’s room for everyone, and each artist brings his or her own spin on kids entertainment. Whether it’s the blues-influenced songs of Funky Mama, the rock-inspired Doo-Dads tracks or even the more recent addition of hip-hop brought to the area by the group H3TV, families in the Kansas City area have a wide array of often-free entertainment options. Each month, the American Jazz Museum even hosts jazz storytelling.

“Everybody adds their own different fingerprint,” said Jeni Cosgrove, who helps manage her husband’s business and at one point represented five different bands. “It’s become a very unique thing for Kansas City.”

After the two-hour set the Doo-Dads performed, my own daughter didn’t want the night to end.

“I am sad because it was so fun, I didn’t want to leave,” she told me as we drove away. She later added, “I love the Doo-Dads.”

And she wasn’t alone.

“Our Friday nights are planned around the Doo-Dads,” said Kansas City resident Mike Anderson.

His 4-year-old daughter, Shane, even received a drum set for her birthday so she could be just like the members of the rock band, who often sport black-rimmed glasses with blue lenses.

Prairie Village resident Mike Coleman said his family tries to attend most of the shows, even listening to the group’s music at home and in the car between concerts.

“It’s fun music for Mom and Dad and the kids,” he said.

The Doo-Dads started 12 years ago after the members had kids of their own. Niewald said all four members — including himself, Joe Gose, Ken Lovern and Matt Kesler — had played in various punk and rock bands before they decided to join together to create the Doo-Dads. In an era of Barney and other highly kid-focused acts, they wanted to create something that appealed to adults as well.

“Musically, it’s just a straight rock and roll band turned down a few notches,” Niewald said.

The transition to a much younger audience was initially terrifying for the band — especially as the group got ready to perform its first show.

“I remember looking at Matt and saying, ‘You know, I am more nervous for this gig than I ever have been in my life,’” Niewald said.

That apprehension quickly eased, and Niewald now loves performing for kids in part because of their extreme honesty. Over the years, the band has produced four albums and a DVD, drawing much of its inspiration from the members’ own children.

But as their kids have gotten older, the group has cut down on the number of shows it performs. While they once were performing anywhere from 75 to 100 shows each year, now they do more like 20 or 30 shows. Niewald owns an optical shop on the Country Club Plaza, Gose is a freelance writer, and Lovern and Kesler are full-time musicians.

“We’re old and lazy,” Niewald joked after the show, saying the group doesn’t travel as much as it once did.

A few nights later, Brynn and I found ourselves at Popsicles in the Park, a free event sponsored by the Independence Parks and Recreation Department.

The venue was a stark contrast from the bar a few nights earlier. It was held at Fairmount Park on an unseasonably cool night in June. A navy blue tent created a makeshift stage, where a set of conga drums and a guitar lay in the grass.

Dolan was off to the side playing with a flying disc while the screams and laughter of children playing on a nearby playground filled the air.

When the show started, Brynn immediately went and sat front and center. She was now a pro.

Dolan began with a song about the continents. The Fairway resident often pulls from his own background as a former preschool and elementary music teacher to create songs that are both educational and interactive.

“As much as possible, we are integrating sing-alongs, along with clapping songs, along with counting songs or a song where they have to do mental math. They have to do math in their head while they are listening to a song, but we’re trying to engage their brains in different ways,” he told me a few days before the show.

During the performance, there was an ease about his style, and when one of the kids impulsively asked whether he could think of an animal to represent Africa instead of the hand symbol he’d planned on using, Dolan didn’t skip a beat.

“Can we do animals for Africa? Sure, we can switch course,” he said.

Parents love that his music is both educational and entertaining. Kansas City resident Azure Simpson has been attending the musician’s shows for most of her 9-year-old son Zadon’s life. The mom of three said the family even attended an earlier show in Grandview that same day but said they never see the exact same show twice.

“He seems to keep coming up with new things,” she said.

Zadon said his favorite part of the shows are the songs that include audience participation.

“Sometimes I might just get up and get in there,” he said.

Brynn also got the chance to play a flying disc like a drum during the show and later marveled about her luck.

“It was, like, so fun. I had to play music. It was all I had to do,” she said of her musical debut.

On a rainy day in June, Brynn and I traveled to the Parkville library to see a legend in the Kansas City kindie scene: Jim Cosgrove, more commonly known by fans as Mr. Stinky Feet.

Cosgrove is in his 17th year of performing and fell into the career somewhat by accident. In the late 1990s, the former journalist had a friend who had become the community relations manager at a Barnes and Noble and knew Cosgrove had written a few children’s songs for his nephews and friends’ children.

She asked if he’d play a few songs at the store, and after the performance parents began to ask for his CD. Cosgrove didn’t have one at the time but decided to take a $1,000 inheritance he’d received from his great aunt to record his first album.

“I thought that would be the only one we would ever do,” he said.

But the CD was a hit, and more would soon follow, plunging Cosgrove into a successful career. He’d eventually travel across the country with his wife and two daughters. At his peak, he did 330 shows across the country in one year.

Cosgrov’s schedule has slowed in recent years — with the veteran performer doing closer to 100 shows each year — largely because of a decision to accept a full-time position with Hallmark. Cosgrove is now working with a company under the famous brand’s umbrella to start a family music label.

This rainy Thursday morning, Cosgrove performed two free shows at the library. The first drew more than 200 people, and the second show drew a similar crowd.

Wearing khakis, a blue Hawaiian shirt and a red baseball cap, the solo performer delivered a high-energy show that began with a tune about rocking the library.

“I liked it,” was the assessment of 5-year-old Andon Koren of Parkville, and so did his mom, Renee Koren.

“I think he’s great, and I love that he brings his family with him,” Renee said, noticing Jeni Cosgrove and the couple’s two daughters at the show.

“It was silly,” said 6-year-old Addison Vance of Kansas City after the show.

Brynn, who had decided she was going to ask Mr. Stinky Feet her own question before the show, quietly leaned over after the performance and told me, “I have to tell you something when we get to the car.”

After we battled the rain and were safely back in the car, she left me with this:

“Mr. Stinky Feet does have stinky feet.”

On an early Tuesday morning, the Lodge at Ironwoods Park in Leawood was filled with the sound of music.

Parents and children were sprawled across the large facility — sitting in chairs or on the ground, or more often on their feet dancing to songs like “Pop N’ Hop” or “Moo Juice.”

Eyler, who is celebrating her 10th year as Funky Mama this summer with a new CD, was clad in a red T-shirt and signature red tennis shoes during the action-packed show.

Aside from being the only female voice Brynn and I heard during our tour of musicians, Eyler also has a unique style mixing blues, soul and a sense of fun.

“I just really like to sing very loudly and proudly and kind of no-holds-barred,” she said.

The former television reporter decided to quit her job to become a mom more than a decade ago and wanted to find something that would combine her lifelong love of music and a passion for children. The result was the start of Funky Mama. Now the Overland Park resident has released eight CDs.

She focuses on performing as her alter ego in the summer months, when she isn’t working as an assistant director of a preschool and a preschool music teacher.

“I can be the best mom and the best teacher and the best musician if I just take shows that fit into my life,” she said.

Leawood resident Metra Holz walked to the show with her children, Aiden and Sophie.

“I liked singing the songs with Mama,” Aiden said after the music ended.

The dancing was also a hit with Brynn.

“I liked the one where I was dancing and meeting friends and stuff,” she told me.

While many of the veteran performers have been entertaining Kansas City children for a decade a more, there are also several new faces in the local scene.

Rockin Rob, also known as Rob Mathieu of Olathe, got his start in 2009 after he became a stay-at-home dad. He had been writing songs his entire life and decided to focus his creative efforts on kids music after having children of his own. The self-described music lover now does more than 250 live shows a year and said his shows are designed to be an interactive and educational rock show. He also teaches music and movement classes at local preschools, day cares and community centers.

Roy Scott and his partner, Reggie Gray, created H3TV in 2010 as a way to bring “healthy hip-hop” (that’s where the “H3” comes from) to kids. The shows feature a mix of hip-hop and magic, and strive to get kids moving. Scott said he got his start in gangster rap but realized he needed to make a change after his 3-year-old son started repeating words from some of the music he produced.

“Basically what I am doing is taking the same urban hip-hop beats and also some of the pop culture sound but putting a positive message behind it for children about education and health and wellness,” he said.

The group, who also produces a television show, typically performs 30 to 40 shows a month throughout the country.

“It’s just been a great journey, and we’ve just been continuing to grow,” Scott said.

For me, I discovered the kindie music scene in Kansas City is alive and well. It’s possible to catch a show in nearly every part of town, at all types of venues featuring one of the city’s many diverse performers. These events are usually free and fun, and offer the perfect opportunity to get out of the house and get moving.

These recent concerts may have only been Brynn’s and my introduction into the kindie music scene in Kansas City, but as far as we can tell, the scene is only gaining momentum. In fact, it’s gaining two new fans.

To learn more about some of Kansas City’s kindie performers and when they may be playing at a stage near you, visit their websites:

The Doo-Dads: TheDooDads.com

Dino O’Dell: DinoODell.com

Funky Mama: FunkyMamaMusic.com

H3TV: H3TV.info

Mr. Stinky Feet: JimCosgrove.com

Rockin Rob: RockinRobSings.com