Natural Rock Stars
Texas eco-musicians inspire young naturalists through music.
By Tolly Moseley
I’m watching a rapper strut across a well-lit stage. Around me, fans chant along to his call-and-response lyrics, swaying in time to the music. They burst into applause after the number is finished, and beg for one last song.
“Throw me your hat!” I hear one girl shout, hoping to score a rare souvenir from this larger-than-life personality.
It may sound as if I’m at a Jay-Z show, but I’m watching someone very different. I’m not in a smoke-filled stadium; I’m happily jammed between 6-year-olds in an elementary school auditorium. The “rapper” is Lucas Miller. He’s not singing about life in the ’hood; he’s singing about life in the wetlands with a plush toy frog on his head. In the background plays a lively slideshow of wetland-dwelling plants and creatures: reeds, birds and an alligator. For once, I’m the tallest one in the crowd.
Miller dubs himself “The Singing Zoologist,” and he’s one of a handful of Texan musicians using their lyrical abilities to teach children about the environment. Count Texan singer-songwriters Purly Gates and Bill Oliver in the fold, too.
In addition to performing, Gates teaches children (and families) how to make musical instruments using recycled materials, while Oliver produces two eco-festivals for kids and families: Lady Bird Lake Fest and Mother Earth Day at the Springs (both in Austin). And while all three originally hail from different parts of the country, Texas is where they landed, inspired both by the state’s ecological diversity and the abundance of young audiences.
“Children have an innate curiosity in nature,” says Oliver. “And we just can’t lose them to technology. Playing shows is a blast for me, but I suppose I view each individual one as part of a much larger mission, to encourage them in their natural sense of adventure and hungry discovery.”
As a member of the manic texting/ tweeting/Facebooking set, I found Oliver’s words refreshing. I often find myself worrying about my future children, and the techy, tinny world that will surround them. Will they go outside? Will they climb trees?
I wasn’t exactly raised by the Swiss Family Robinson myself, but I was among the last generation to grow up without the Internet, and I cherish my outdoorsy, sun-streaked youth. Not surprisingly, Miller, Oliver and Gates feel the same way: All three have a deep connection to the children they once were, the ones who still hunger for discovery. I wanted to find out how 21st century kids were responding to their message.
“I think music is in us for more reasons than by accident,” says Miller. “Rhythm helps us remember things.”
Miller and I are chatting on the phone about music. Our conversation has taken a physiological turn.
“There’s research from anthropologists that says that music happens to tickle this part of the brain where language is located,” he tells me. “It helps us create patterns. Repeat things. Remember things.”
He should know. Recently, a mom wrote Miller to say: “My son and I just came home from South Padre Island, and he sang me your entire 5-minute song about sea turtles in the car.”
Having played for over 1.5 million children during his career, Miller says this kind of feedback from a young fan’s parent isn’t new — but it’s still thrilling. More than anything, he wants to enable kids to make connections in their natural world.
“One of my first jobs out of college was to work on this sailboat that did trips for kids, in Connecticut,” says Miller, a Kentucky native. “They gave me the song list from the last guy, but they were all too simple. They didn’t have a lot to say about science, and some of them weren’t even accurate! So I started writing my own stuff instead, songs that would put a tune to all the things kids were seeing in the water.”
Miller worked on the boat while his then-girlfriend (now wife) finished grad school, slowly expanding his repertoire of kid-friendly eco-tunes. They moved to Austin in 1994, leading Miller to a job at the Austin Zoo, hosting birthday parties and leading field trips. It was that gig that earned him his famous moniker, and it wasn’t long before “The Singing Zoologist” took his act on the road.
“I’m in the Hill Country one week, the East Texas forest the next,” says Miller. “At each of my school visits I always try to communicate the fact that it’s good for us to appreciate the wildlife in our own areas, rather than just the stuff we see on the Discovery Channel — the African plains and stuff like that. We have this big ecological variety in Texas, which makes our state pretty special.”
Audiences seem to find him special, too. The National Endowment for the Arts named Miller an American Masterpiece Artist for three years in a row (2008-10), and he has performed twice at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Miller’s stage presence channels Bill Nye the Science Guy in a Hawaiian shirt, and his songs marry science with a Shrek-like sense of humor. Crowd favorites include The Mako Shark (which discusses the food chain), Slimy! (which clarifies the texture of a snake’s skin) and The Chimichanga Song (which is about delicious Mexican food, as well as the difference between carnivores and herbivores).
As if being a children’s rock star didn’t keep him busy enough, Miller is also a children’s book author. His most recent book, Bluebonnet Time: An Evan Wilder Science Journal, uses Texans’ obsession with roadside family portraits to illustrate botanical truths about our state flower.
“And trust me, I indulge that obsession,” Miller laughs. “But maybe with this book, kids and families will know all the little intricate processes that go into making that flower so unique. That’s what I’m after: Writing songs about a world they interact with every day and helping them to see it with fresh and curious eyes.”
One of Miller’s personal idols is Oliver himself, a man who also credits his career to a boat.
“A major turning point of my life was rafting the Mississippi River,” says Oliver. “I was a huge fan of Mark Twain novels — maybe too big a fan — and my buddy and I decided we were going to sail the whole thing. This would have been the summer of ’68, when I was kind of attending college, but mostly playing music and having adventures. That trip changed a lot of things for me.”
It’s not a surprise that this would be the man who would help lead the Texas River School, produce nature festivals on the shores of Barton Springs and release an album titled Friend of the River. The last time I watched him perform, it was at a benefit for the Edwards Aquifer organization Save Our Springs.
“Water is very sacred to me, but it’s also an easy sell for kids, too,” says Oliver. “Being out on a boat is a novelty. Exciting, you know? So that’s why I really like to involve water in our festivals, because believe it or not, some of the kids who come have never even been out to Barton Springs before. So this is nature education what we’re doing here, but it’s exciting and out of the ordinary, too.”
Oliver’s nickname — “Mr. Habitat” — grew out of the song that put him on the musical map. An Internet search for Have to Have a Habitat pulls up scores of YouTube covers 30 years after its release. Oliver wrote the song while taking classes at Austin Community College’s Biology Department, where he was moved to do more with his music — to “take a stand,” as he describes it.
It’s a good thing, too: Since he began singing for children in the ’70s, the radius around the home where most children are allowed to roam on their own has shrunk to one-ninth of what it was then. It’s a fact Richard Louv reports in his book Last Child in the Woods.
“I grew up in treehouses,” Oliver tells me. “It’s a different world for kids now, but I think that’s why they are so jazzed when they come out for a show or for the River School. They might not get too many experiences like that, and whether they’re on a boat, or dancing to a song — hopefully both simultaneously — it’s like, this is it, kids. This, right here, is a rich moment.”
When it comes to the environment, Gates uses her musical know-how somewhat differently. She starts with recycled materials, a do-it-yourself spirit and a burly set of power tools.
“Well, you need something to drill through all that plastic!” laughs Gates. “Seriously though, I like showing girls how to work a drill. Boys, too, of course, but girls sometimes have this idea that they’re not supposed to … and I change that thinking.”
I went to one of Gates’ instrument-making workshops at the Wimberley Community Center, where a couple of parents, a table full of youngsters and I crafted Brazilian cuícas: instruments that sound either like stepping on a creaky wooden stoop or the mating call of an amorous bullfrog.
“Does anyone know where plastic comes from?” she asks the table. “Petroleum. The same stuff they make oil out of,” she explains. A few pairs of wide eyes stare at her.
“It’s true! Weird but true,” she assures us, right before busting out an impromptu percussive beat on her cuíca. “And I figure, why not use that oil stuff again? Make some music with it?”
Gates’ easy banter is a quality she picked up performing everywhere from the Texas Book Festival to Disney World. She narrates her craft lessons with stories, telling us how she got the water for our cuícas by traveling to the Amazon River. When it’s passed around for our use, we are so careful we might as well be handling liquid gold.
“You can use everyday things for music, you know, like jug bands,” she says. I grin immediately, thinking about Gates with a washtub bass, plucking away in suspenders and a newsboy cap.
“Is this a jug?” one girl asks, pointing to her new cuíca.
“Nope, that was a bucket of almond butter from Wheatsville,” says Gates, referring to an Austin grocery store. “But we’re giving it a new existence.”
The girl shares a mischievous eyebrow raise with the boy next to her, and I hear her whisper to him: “We have buckets at home. Like a hundred.”
They giggle conspiratorially, thinking about all the old buckets they are about to surprise into a new musical existence.