Although country music's appeal to children is about as old as the cord on Roy Acuff's yo-yo, Walt Disney Records has come up with a new way to revive that interest: top-shelf country-western singers crooning tunes specifically for kiddie cowpokes.
Country-western music, with its family themes and folk roots, has long been a listening favorite of the under-12 set and their parents. And with its recent resurgence, families are doing their listening -- and concert-going -- together.
From Mr. Acuff, who has played fiddle at the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years -- at times performing tricks with his yo-yo while singing -- to Riders in the Sky, a country-western trio with a Saturday morning television show, country music has been a family affair.
Seizing on the rising popularity of country music and a growth in the children's music industry, Disney Records gathered country giants Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris and Buck Owens for its "Country Music for Kids" album. The album, co-produced by Herb Pederson, founder of the Desert Rose Band, and record producer Jay Levy, also features the vocals of Mr. Pederson, Patty Loveless, the Oak Ridge Boys, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Chris Hillman, David Grisman and Byron Berline.
The album, with original and traditional songs, is pure country, but soft-core. It contains none of the trademark cheatin', lyin' and cryin' country love songs that make for those saucy song titles.
Hard-core Mr. Haggard, known for such songs as "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room Tonight," tones down for the album to perform the folk classic "Bingo."
"I always had a yearning to do an album for children," said Mr. Haggard, the father of five children between the ages of 2 1/2 and 35. "Over the years, I have collected songs for children. I'm fixin' to do a whole album of my own. I'm talking to Disney about it."
When Mr. Pederson approached Mr. Haggard about singing a song on the album, the country legend said he had been waiting for an opportunity to jump into the burgeoning children's music industry.
"This is a business," Mr. Haggard said. "We have to stay alive businesswise or we end up like General Motors."
Critics say release of the album is in sync with what's happening in the country music mecca -- Branson, Mo. -- where hot country stars perform in theaters designed for family entertainment.
"It goes along with the trend in country music's expanding audiences," said music critic Ron Sylvester.
"In Branson this year especially, audiences are getting younger and younger. For the past several years, it attracted the mainly 50-plus crowd. Now we're seeing people in their 20s and 30s with young families."
Mr. Campbell and Mr. Haggard are regular Branson performers who also appear on the album. Mr. Campbell sings "I Love to Play Outside," written by Mr. Levy and Mr. Pederson.
"Country music is a lot more family oriented," said Mr. Campbell, the father of eight children ages 5 to 33. "It's a lot cleaner. This is a good little idea."
All the artists contacted for inclusion in the album supported the concept, Mr. Pederson said.
"I loved working with them. I loved them all," Mr. Pederson said. "It was a real thrill for me to have Earl and Merle on the record, Buck Owens, too."
Although the album is for children, Mr. Pederson said he took pains to make an intelligent piece.
"We're not playing down to them," he said. "We're playing to them."
Ms. Loveless, a friend of Mr. Pederson's, agreed: "We're speaking to them in their language," she said. "Videos have helped kids warm up to country music."
Ms. Loveless, who sings Mr. Levy and Mr. Pederson's "So Many Questions, So Little Time," said she agreed to appear on the album because it is educational as well as entertaining.
"I've baby-sat quite a few times for friends and family," said Ms. Loveless, who also has performed in Nashville, Tenn., schools. "Children are so full of questions. And [that song] tells them that you learn by asking what's on your mind."