By Jof Owen
As country entered the 80s with an outlaw hangover, it would be left to a certain group of lovable educational puppets to return it to its roots.
Pickings were slim for country classics in 1981; with the exception of Seven Year Ache, Strait Country and Reba’s Heart To Heart, there really weren’t that many genuinely timeless albums climbing the country charts.
Neo-traditional country was just a glint in George Strait’s eye, while country music was suffering from the success of Urban Cowboy, a ‘70s outlaw country hangover that would last for a couple more years still. Dolly Parton was off in Hollywood, and although Waylon and Jessi panned a little country gold with Leather and Lace, outlaws and legends alike were struggling against the flashy production of the ‘80s.
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the only country album to win a Grammy Award in ’81 was Sesame Country. A live Muppet jamboree, the album featured Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Count Von Count, Oscar The Grouch and Bert and Ernie, alongside star turns from Glen Campbell, Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker and Loretta Lynn.
Augmented by the Muppet Mountain Band – later to become the Blue Fur Mountain Band – and the Sesame Street O.K. Corral Chorus, Sesame Country was unashamedly looking back to push things forward, in the same way the neo-traditionalist movement of the mid-eighties would a few years later. The record was a ground-breaking mix of simple old-timey bluegrass, sweeping countrypolitan and classic country reimagined for rising fives.
Crystal Gayle stepped straight out of the pop-country explosion of the ‘70s to be reunited with the Muppets once again, following her seminal performance of ‘River Road’ on the show in 1979.
Although ‘Songs’ would become an Elmo standard in time, the ‘Little Red Menace’ was still relatively new to the street in 1981, so it was up to Big Bird to take the reins for the schmaltzy toe-tapper. Written by Dennis Scott – who wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs on Sesame Country – ‘Songs’ is just one of the tracks that broke new ground in country music at the time, while fitting seamlessly into Crystal Gayle’s mom-country oeuvre.
Cookie Monster’s interpretation of the prairie country classic ‘The Last Cookie Roundup’ meanwhile sounded literally like nothing else that was going on at the turn of the decade. With its close mountain harmonies, soft orchestration and heartbreakingly sad lyrics – “looking for cookies, me not even find one / still looking for cookies, me settle for crumb” – it predates the Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt Trio albums of the late 80s by a good six years.
Written by Harry Vanda and George Young, and originally appearing on a John Paul Young album from 1976, ‘Keep On Smilin’ is the only song Dennis Scott didn’t write on Sesame Country. It’s a shuffling country funk double-hander between Glen Campbell and Oscar The Grouch. With Glen insisting that the best way to get through life is by staying upbeat and optimistic, the Grouch makes a stand against positive mental attitudes the world over, insisting that we should all just “keep on frowning”. It was a welcome throwback to the male-male duet partners of the 70s, and still provides a timely lesson in expectation management four decades on.
Count Von Count stakes a claim as being Transylvania’s foremost country singer with two standout tracks on the album. Performing ‘Count Von Count’s Continuous Country Cookin’ Downhome Diner’– a down-tempo barn dance hoedown that bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Doozer Song’ from Fraggle Rock - before joining Loretta Lynn to sing ‘Count On Me’.
Introduced by Big Bird as being “together again for the very first time”, Count Von Count and Loretta are faultlessly at ease with each other, trading lines flirtatiously, with Count Von Count in particularly sparkling form, rolling Loretta “R”s and playfully throwing in Elizabeth Barrett Browning references. Loretta responds with a belting, career-defining performance, somehow managing not to laugh every time Count Von Count interjects with an approving “yeees”.
Sesame Country saves the best for last though, with the jaunty Big Bird and Tanya Tucker duet ‘You’ll Never Take the Texas Out Of Me’. It’s that rare combination of humour and heartbreak that can be so hard to capture on a record. Sometimes it takes a giant yellow singing bird to bring it out of you I suppose.
Listening back forty years later, it feels like it’s time for a reappraisal, not just of Sesame Country – sounding as bright and fresh and groundbreaking as it did when it first came out – but also of the Muppets musical legacy in general.
It’s a welcome opportunity to reevaluate and recognise the influence they had, not just on country music, but all music - particularly by artists who grew up in the late seventies. It’s unlikely that Wayne Coyne or Jack White would sing the way they do if they hadn’t grown up on a steady diet of Kermit The Frog, while the sheer omnipresence of the Muppets in mainstream culture since the show began in 1974 still ripples across the musical landscape years later.
With country stars like Kacey Musgraves, Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris recently seen hanging around the Manhattan brownstone, maybe it’s about time for the long overdue follow up to this muppet classic.