Birth of the anti-cool 

I haven’t even met Owen Duggan yet, and already my conscience has gotten the best of me. The man is a music minister at a local church, an accomplished children’s musician, a devoted family man, and I’ve invited him to where else but the booze-filled, smoke-tinged dregs of happy hour in the Alamo City.

Fortunately, as I step inside the local watering hole, I instantly notice Duggan (admittedly “not a barfly”) sipping on a Shiner, and my mind is put at ease. We will, however, broach the subject of other potentially mind-bending substances later in the evening.

In the meantime, I’m curious — how exactly does one go about forging a career in the children’s music genre?

“I wrote songs for my son when he was born,” says the 50-year-old Duggan, whose son, Donny, is now 6 (he and his wife also has a 2-year-old daughter). “I kind of played around with some songs and shared them with friends. They thought it was cool.”

Spurred on by that encouragement, Duggan — Canadian by birth, San Antonian by residence —set out to record a disc of original and cover songs geared toward the children’s market. Released with an initial press run of 2,000 copies more than two years ago, his debut effort — An Elephant Never Forgets — quickly became a hit among local retailers and Amazon.com shoppers.

The release — a 15-track showcase of rhythmic, light-hearted fare — also won awards from groups like the Parents’ Choice Foundation, Children’s Music Web, and National Parenting Publications. The album offers a mix of original recordings —the title track (my 4-year-old’s personal favorite) was named Best Song for Infants and Toddlers at the Children’s Music Web Awards – and covers of yesteryear — “The Ants (Go Marching)” (my personal favorite). Duggan and crew recently remastered the disc and pressed several thousand more copies. It is now available at most major music outlets and on iTunes.

Duggan — who has traveled the world as an opera singer (Italy), a folk singer (Canada), and a student of music (earning a Ph.D in Applied Music from the University of Texas at Austin) —credits pioneers of the children’s musical movement (Burl Ives; Peter, Paul & Mary; etc.) for his recent success.

“I was very lucky to be exposed to good children’s music at a young age,” Duggan says. “But it was music that appealed to kids and adults. The music that I write, in my mind, is just folk music. It appeals to kids, but adults can relate to it as well.”

Such was the case with Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon,” an early ’60s hit among children for its cutesy tale of an ageless dragon, and a favorite among adults who cited it as a stoned ode to the sticky green. Duggan, who professes adoration for the song, isn’t under any delusions about its secondary meaning.

“I think it’s obvious that there are some (drug) references in there,” he says.

Duggan has also set about recording music with a message, albeit of the drug-inuendo-free variety. Though An Elephant Never Forgets is a collection of harmless, kid-friendly tracks, Duggan — who has already begun recording the follow-up — said subsequent releases will tackle more relevant subjects, like environmental awareness.

“It sounds corny to say the green movement is popular, but in reality, the ‘no littering’ and the initial wave of environmental concern was in folk music,” says Duggan, still nursing the hell out of that first Shiner. “A lot of people were really active in it, and the fact is that (those ideals) never really got away. They’re just a little more pressing now. We’re getting into a situation where there is fallout in the environment, in our lives and in our pocketbooks.”

The look in his eyes while making such proclamations conveys the rebellious aura of the ’60s and ’70s folk movement, but Duggan — at least, as he appears on this particular day — doesn’t exactly fit the rebel’s bill. He sports neatly pressed khaki pants, matching socks and shoes, and glasses.

Not that Duggan aspires to anything beyond his conservative, anti-cool approach, even as his music is concerned.

“When your music doesn’t have to be hip, it takes the pressure off,” he says. “The boundaries are limitless … When you’re not trained or induced to be cutting-edge and hip, you can do anything, and you can step outside the format more. At some point, you have recognized that ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ are manipulated by industry and commerce, and what we think is cool is really set up to make us feel cool by buying certain tennis shoes or CDs.”

At this point in the interview — maybe it’s the happy-hour beer specials, the reserved passion with which Duggan speaks, or a combination of the two – I’m starting to feel like he should ditch his music-director duties and start his own church, a Reverend Billy-meets-Burl Ives sort of institution for anti-establishment family types.

Duggan continues: “(At my age), you don’t have to be subject to the standards that people buy into in their teens and 20s, where that’s all you think and know … It’s really just a bunch of marketing people hanging around where the hip people are and borrowing, adopting, or stealing that. What we think is hip and happening isn’t original, and as soon as you think you’re hip, you’re not.”

Not so surprisingly, Duggan long ago quit trying to keep up with the trends, hence the reason An Elephant Never Forgets features him on bizarre-cool instruments like banjo, xylophone, and even tin whistle.

“This music,” he says, still sipping on the very same Shiner, even as our hour-long interview draws to a close, “is deliberately anti-hip.”


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