I was driving down the road one day…

“I know what this song is about!” my son announced proudly from the backseat.

We were in a bit of a hurry, so I didn’t steal a look at the XM display. I’d never heard the song before–some autotuned pop ballad that on most days would make me cry for the future of American music–so I humored the kid.

“Oh, yeah? What is this song about?” I asked and backed into our cul-de-sac (the suburban warrior’s medieval defensive position, for those not familiar).

“This girl’s heart is bleeding because she loves a boy that she isn’t s’posed to love,” my son said.

I hit the brakes and looked at the dashboard. “Bleeding Love?” I said under my breath “Who is Leona Lewis? Oh, hell no.”

I stabbed at the radio keys and then sat unmoving in my seat.

I had failed.

* * *

The above happened several months ago. I struggled with how I had spent more than four years with a good opportunity to help my kid understand music and somehow he had ended up memorizing the “meanings” behind Top 40 radio. I might as well have left home and let him raise himself. Better put, I might as well have shipped him off to a place with no soul and counted on him to find his way out.

Fathers–especially those like me, one who has struggled with his own discipline and responsibility issues–experience the occasional epiphany. There in the middle of the cul-de-sac, I got smacked right in the nose with mine. The boy’s life flashed before my eyes. When we left St. Francis in August 2004, his infant brain heard a live Phish show from Charlotte on the car speakers. When he was a baby, my wife would dance him around the room to the sounds of Yonder Mountain String Band. Somewhere in the middle, I lost focus.

I didn’t have any desire or illusions about forcing my music on my son. A kid is going to make his own decisions eventually, and far be it for me to force him into any genres. If, in a few years, the boy decides Nirvana was the best band ever and grows his hair like Cobain, I’ll just have to suck it up and deal. I went through a Jim Morrison phase when I was young and my parents rolled with it. That said, a kid needs a foundation or he is never going to be able to build anything. Was I going to count on other people to build that foundation?

I was cleaning the kitchen a couple of weeks ago and from the other room heard my mother-in-law ask my son, “Do you like the Jonas Brothers?”

“No!” I screamed. “He doesn’t!”

“Welllll, okay,” I heard her say. “I was going to buy him a Jonas Brother lunch box.”

I imagined the scene–my boy, the kid who likes football, and fighting, and drums–prancing into school with a Jonas Brothers lunch box. I almost cried.

If you read Bands of Brothers, you know this has been on my heart for a few months. Something, obviously, had to be done.

And so I started with some education. My iPod has around 36GB of music on it. I thought there might be enough on there to get the kid interested. We started with the Beatles White Album, moved on to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and continued on through anything I could get the kid to enjoy for more than sixty seconds. Eventually, the kid was grabbing his drum sticks, throwing the goat, and wanting to hear “Live Wire” as many times as I would play it. Not perfect, but progress.

Since he started school a couple of weeks ago, the boy and I have spending a lot more time in the car together. I start every trip by asking, “What kind of music do you want to listen to today?” In the past two weeks, we’ve listened to everything from Steve Earle, to Yonder Mountain String Band, to Motley Crue, to Ozomatli.

This morning, my boy climbed into the backseat, put his Cars lunchbox beside him, and settled in behind the seatbelt. I slipped my iPod in the dock and started the car.

“What kind of music are we listening to this morning?” I asked.

The kid was silent for a second. Through the rearview mirror, I couldn’t see his eyes well enough to decide whether he was wondering dreamily about Leona Lewis or whether his dad was all wrong about the Jonas Brothers. The silence continued long enough for me to put the car in reverse. Then he spoke.

“I want to hear Possum,” he said.

I smiled to myself and thought, “Put that in your Jonas Brothers lunch box and smoke it.”

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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14 Responses

  1. Julius_Goat says:

    Well done. Reminds me, I have to ween my girls off the Disney Princess songs.

    A Whole New World? My head is the road.

  2. Simone says:

    I guess I should also remove Hannah Montana/ Miley Cyrus from my car and start something new… Just NOT Leona Lewis.

  3. Pauly says:

    Start ’em young. Lil Otis is a space kid. We’ll see him on 2025 Phish summer tour.

  4. Aaron says:

    I find it funny you express love for the Crue, but distaste for Nirvana. My best tool for getting my son to enjoy my music has been Rock Band and Guitar Hero. His top three bands right now are Nirvana, The Pixies, and Smashing Pumpkins. Next Up The Beatles Rock Band.

  5. otis says:

    Aaron–It’s not a Nirvana distaste or Crue love. I could never argue against Nirvana’s impact on music or Crue’s superficiality. As odd as it is (and I’m at a complete loss to explain or defend it), I just never got into Nirvana. Go figure, huh? And Crue is just a piece of nostalgia for me.

  6. gatorphish says:

    Nice. You, sir, are a wonderful father.
    Last week I put my son to bed (one year’s old this Saturday) to Miles Davis (Kind of Blue) and then Van Morrison (Astral Weeks), I believe he enjoyed it greatly.

    My daughter (almost four) can pick out a Phish song, but still calls the band Fishman. When she was under a year old, the easiest way to get her to sleep was to play anything with Jerry singing. She would also calm down to SCI, YMSB, DTB, and Neil Young.

  7. KenP says:

    What a wonderful event.

    The Lad has brought Otis out of his shell.

    And a child shall lead them.

    (I’m sure he listens to Ackey Breaky Heart in private.)

  8. Poker Shrink says:

    I was riding in my aunt’s car and she turned off the radio because that “boy with the dirty hips” was singing. It was 1959 and she was censoring Elvis Presley.

    I’m just sayin’

  9. AgSweep says:

    Both my kids can sing every word to ‘Thunder Road’ and can whine along on ‘Abandoned Luncheonette'(obscure Hall and Oates). Apparently children are resilient, if that didn’t warp them nothing can. Keep filling your house with music and love and you can’t go wrong.

  10. BadBlood says:

    Within the first few seconds of “Harvester of Sorrow” my son asked me just this morning, “Dad, is that Metallica?”

  11. Daddy says:


  12. G-Rob says:

    This story makes Uncle G-Rob EXTREMELY happy.

  13. T says:


  14. OhCaptain says:

    I struggle with the musical education of my kids. My wife is pretty much a devote top 40 girl. My tastes lean all over the rock/jazz/blues map, but we live in music hell. The biggest live music even here every year is the Lorrie Line concert (I shudder).

    The influences surrounding my kids are powerful. I hope I find a way like you to share my love of music with my kids.

    Thanks for the post