The last time Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet performed in El Paso was in the late 1970s. They were in St. Elmo's Fire, a fine folk-rock group from Houston that had a golden-voiced singer in Connie Mims and a batch of well-written originals.
They played at the New Buffalo, then a Downtown rock club, at a time when original music was as scarce around here as snow, and appreciated even less. A band that was embraced all around Texas for its unique sound had a rude awakening here, fielding requests for "Freebird," among indignities.
"They had string bikini and wet t-shirt contests on the break," Idlet remembers. "I was baffled constantly."
El Paso's grown up a lot since then. Singer-bassist Grimwood and singer-guitarist Idlet have grown down, in a manner of speaking, and not just because of their advancing years.
They play in the Grammy Award-nominated folk duo Trout Fishing in America — named for Richard Brautigan's counterculture novella — which has made quite a name for itself with the little ones.
They'll be making music with local kids this week when they teach the finer points of songwriting to third through seventh graders at the private St. Clement's Parish School, 600 Montana.
They'll conclude their first El Paso stop with a public performance at 6 p.m. Nov. 9 on the St. Clement's Athletic Field. Tickets are $10, on sale at the school, at the door or by calling 533.4248.
The duo first started performing as Trout in the late '70s, when they'd open for their own band, St. Elmo's Fire. They played their first children's show in 1977 at the request of a friend, a teacher in their hometown of Houston, to show kids that "music came from people, not just boxes or records," Idlet says, speaking by phone from Prairie Grove, Ark, where they're now based.
The two men were five albums into their career when they released "Big Trouble," the first of their nine children's albums and two children's book/CD combos. "It took a while to amass that number of kids songs," Idlet says of "Big Trouble." "They were sort of coming slowly. At that point, kids shows were a small portion of our daily stuff. They've grown considerably."
So has Trout's rep as a top-flight children's and family act. Its children's albums have been nominated for Grammy Awards four times. They've also won three National Indie Awards and several Parents Choice Awards and American Library Awards.
They did all of this on their own, without benefit of a major label, or even a large independent label. Grimwood, who stands 5-foot-5.5, and Idlet, who towers over him at 6-foot-8, released their own albums from the start, a rarity at the time, but common today. The duo built up a mailing list and sent out monthly newsletters well before blogs and websites became the norm.
St. Elmo's broke up in 1979 in part because it didn't get any interest from record companies. Trout didn't get much either. "What we were doing for ourselves we were doing well as an independent, more through our records than live performances," Idlet says. "It was a great time (to do it). CDs were just exploding as a medium."
The guys write what they want, influsing their songs with rock, pop, reggae, blues and other influences, even classical. Grimwood is a classically trained bassist who once played with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
The songwriting workshops they'll conduct this week aren't designed to turn the young ones into instant songwriters. They want to show them how songwriting works. "For the most part, it's the process that's important," Idlet says.
No idea is a bad idea. One song they recorded, "There's an Alien in My Nose," about you know what, started with a suggestion from a student in one of their workshops. The duo typically starts by playing and dissecting a few of their own songs, then open it up to ideas.
"It's constant give-and-take," Idlet says. "We ask them what they think is a good idea to write a song about and present them with a blank sheet of paper. It fills up very quickly."
They whittle the suggestions to about three ideas and "work with them, let them vote on which ones they'd like to do or do best with and come up with one idea," he adds.
Grimwood will discuss ways to express those ideas and Idlet fiddles around on the guitar "to find a chord pattern and energy" for the song they've writing.
The workshop concludes with a recording of the children singing their song with the duo, and an mp3 copy is given to the school to distribute to the kids and their families as "a tangible bit of evidence" of whta they've done.
What do they hope the kids will learn?
"That in writing a song all ideas are on the table, and as they're judging and listening to the ideas, they will want to pay attention to what the song is saying to make sure the ideas fit, to not be afraid to throw down even dopey ideas or a nonsense phrase," says Idlet, who has two kids of his own with wife and El Paso native Karen Thom Idlet (Dana and Steven Idlet, both of whom played basketball for UTEP opponent the University of Tulsa).
"The biggest hurdle for people writing anything is getting over their need to write something perfect in the first draft," Idlet adds. "You have to be able to throw down a ton of junk and see what works and what doesn't."
Obviously, it's working for Trout, who've seen their audiences grow over the more than 30 years they've been singing, writing, recording and performing together. They do three different kinds of shows — one for little kids, one for families and one for the grownups.
But it doesn't seem to matter what the setting is, the band's audiences seem to span all generations. "I've seen as many as five generations of a single family at a show," the guitarist says. "Once people grow up Trout, people that heard us in bars in the '80s, they had kids, those kids had kids and even some of those kids had kids. They've grown up with our music."