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Striking a chord with the youth set
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Like many musicians today, singer-songwriter Ralph Covert points to the Beatles as an early influence. He was introduced to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band during grade school when a summer camp counselor played side one of the iconic album over and over again, and it hooked him.
Unlike many musicians, however, the 1984 University of Iowa graduate has found his calling in the genre of children’s music.
Performing catchy tunes such as the melodic “Riding With No Hands,” the bluesy “Clean My Room,” and the nod to Johnny Cash, “Folsom Daycare Blues,” Covert and his band Ralph’s World have toured the country and recorded 10 albums, earning a Grammy nomination for their 2005 release Green Gorilla Monster & Me.
During a stint as a Disney Recording Artist in the 2000s, Covert received significant exposure when his music videos were broadcast on the Disney Channel, and more recently he became the first kids’ musician to sell out a performance at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. His latest project is a Ralph’s World television series called Time Machine Guitar (“Think Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood meets A Hard Day’s Night,” he says), for which he is trying to find a network.
Composing music for kids, Covert says, has made for a rewarding career.
“The creative landscape is as limitless as a child’s imagination—it’s an incredibly freeing and exciting genre to write for,” says Covert, who majored in English at Iowa while also studying music and creative writing. “Lyrically, you can be as adventurous as you want, and you can tap into kids’ emotions. Musically, you have the freedom to write in different genres. By performing in various genres, such as reggae or blues, you’re teaching kids about them.”
Covert also is one of a handful of kids’ musicians whose work has been noted for its palatability among parents (his CDs have been known to continue playing after the kids have gone to bed). A 2005 New York Times review even suggested he could be the genre’s Elvis Presley—or at least its Elvis Costello.
“What makes Ralph’s World unique in the genre of children’s music,” he explains, “is that we don’t approach it as kids’ music—we approach it as if our competition was the Beatles, not Barney. We have the same commitment to excellence.”
He was a decade out of college before finding his niche in kids’ music, but Covert says his time on the Iowa campus was instrumental in nurturing his creative spirit.
"My twin loves are music and fiction writing, and the English and music departments at Iowa really allowed me to explore,” says Covert, whose parents had met and married in Iowa City. “I was able to do some work with the Writers’ Workshop as an undergraduate, and although my interest was in pop music, they let me take classes in music orchestration.”
Covert was a prolific writer as a student and also enjoyed performing around Iowa City, both solo and with his first band, A Certain Crowd. Ambitions of teaching English and pursuing music on the side evaporated during a student teaching practicum, when he discovered that being a good teacher would demand his full attention—and that music was the better outlet for him.
“I realized that what I had to say fit more into the realm of a three-minute pop song than a novel. I just didn’t have the life experience to populate a novel as I would have liked to," he says. "The confluence of my English and writing skills with my composition and music skills was a unique fit, and I realized that music and songwriting was the calling for me.”
After graduation, Covert headed back to his hometown of Chicago and had some success with a band called the Bad Examples, with whom he still occasionally records and performs. The alternative pop-rock band had become the top-drawing club act in Chicago by 1991, and its single “Not Dead Yet” was later featured in an episode of the popular HBO series Six Feet Under. But the wave of grunge rock that flooded the country in the 1990s curtailed the band’s popularity (“The music landscape changed, and our melodic song–based pop was not what it was all about,” he recalls).
About the same time, Covert became a father and the band stopped touring. He took a gig teaching songwriting at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, and before long he was asked to take on a Wiggleworms class for tots and their parents. He found he enjoyed the experience, and that led him to form Ralph’s World.
“I always loved kids,” says Covert, whose family now includes four children, ages 4 to 18. “When I was a teenager, I was probably the top babysitter in the neighborhood. I spent all my money buying vinyl records.”
With Time Machine Guitar, Covert hopes to engage kids in lessons on history as well as music.
“In the TV series, I live in a treehouse with three puppets: a squirrel, a cat, and a dog. We have a time machine guitar, and with it we take trips back in time to learn about historical figures and also the history of music. There is dancing and music and history—and lots of high-energy, silly fun.”
A pilot was shot in 2012, and Covert hopes to find a home for it soon, perhaps on public television. “I’m really proud of it. I think it will fit a unique niche in the market.”
In the meantime, Covert spends time with his family, hosts monthly music jams (billed as Ralph’s Acoustic Army) at FitzGerald's in Berwyn, Ill., and enjoys listening to music from Serge Gainsbourg, Howling Wolf, Toots and the Maytals, and, still, the Beatles.