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Published August 10 2010

Fargo-based children’s musician releases new CD

If guitar icon Eddie Van Halen made a children’s album, it might play something like the classic rock-sounding song “I Wish I Were (a Little Bar of Soap).”

The tune, with its guitar tapping and “Oh, I wish I was a little rock star” verse, is part of “On and On,” the diverse-sounding new record by the popular Fargo-Moorhead children’s music group Penny & Pals.

Of course, perhaps a little classic-rock influence isn’t so surprising. Penny Andrist – the Penny of Penny & Pals – just turned 50 years old, and she says she keeps expecting the gap between her age and that of her audience to cause a problem. But so far, so good.

“You can fool a lot of people if you act like a kid,” said Andrist, sporting her signature short, black, spiky hair.

The new album, which is the musical outfit’s seventh, also blends in a little Dixieland, a pinch of Louisiana spice, a bit of jazz and some ukulele.

Keeping the styles diverse is typical of this group, as is the healthy dose of energy and fun. Andrist says the goal of the band, which stays busy in the region playing shows for children, is to have fun, get kids moving and “to send a message now and then.”

One such message is in “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” track two of the new album, which Andrist says has something “grown-up” to say.

“This little dude” gets back up and keeps trying, she says.

What is new about “On and On,” which was released late last month, is that it’s comprised primarily of traditional children’s songs instead of original Penny & Pals tunes.

Andrist wanted to preserve some of the “good old stuff” she used to sing with her family. But, while the words and melodies on the album will be familiar to listeners, the arrangements are “fresh,” she says.

For example, “Head and Shoulders (Knees and Toes)” has a zydeco sound and is backed by vocalists happily droning “Ba-ba-ba-ba-body parts.” Several members of area classic-rock horn band Post-Traumatic Funk Syndrome pitch in to contribute some groove to the aforementioned “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

“Down By the Bay” has a whimsical, Dixieland accompaniment, including some trombone by Concordia College’s Nat Dickey.

Andrist was “great,” Dickey said. “She was just so enthusiastic about what she was hearing.”

Dickey was only one of several area musicians to find their way onto the album. Fargo guitarist Jim Goodwin played on a number of tracks, including the Van Halen-esque “I Wish I Were (a Little Bar of Soap).”

“Well, they told me to kind of go crazy on that one,” he said.

Success at any level

The genesis of Penny & Pals goes back to the mid-1980s when Andrist and Gail Benson were working with kindergarten students in Williston, N.D.

“We just found that music was a very effective and efficient” means of teaching them, Andrist says.

“I believe that kids have this innate musical intelligence,” says Andrist, who, along with Benson, is also co-coordinator of children’s young adult ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Fargo.

They developed a curriculum and recordings. And Penny began performing as a way of promoting the albums. She’s still taking it to the stage with costumed characters like the large and shiny silver Rockin’ Robot and the headband-and-sports-shirt-wearing Bernie the Bear.

It’s a job she enjoys. Andrist says she “really genuinely likes” the children.

Maybe Andrist’s affection for her listeners has something to do with her popularity.

Ryan Jackson, who recorded “On and On,” says that when Andrist shows up for a gig, you’d think Madonna was in the house.

There are those who tell her that Penny & Pals should make the big time. And Andrist says she’d be thrilled if things went national. But she’s happy just performing for the children in this area.

“If I’m with kids and we’re having a good time and they’ve got joy on their faces, that defines success for me no matter what level it is,” Andrist said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734