Meet the Viral Musician Playing Nursery Rhymes in the Style of Your Favorite Band

How one songwriter started a phenomenon when all he wanted was some peace and quiet

June 28, 2023 6:27 am
K.S. Rhoads
K.S. Rhoads

K.S. Rhoads is playing a child’s birthday party. With three studio records to his credit and music appearing in ads for Zillow, Apple and Coke, Rhoads has never needed to play a kid’s birthday party. He doesn’t even write kids’ music. And he’s never been flown to New York to play a birthday party, to perform kids’ songs that aren’t his, in a style not his own, and for a dad who says he’s not going to punch him in the face (but may, in fact, take a swing).

So, why is Rhoads, age 46, playing this particular birthday party?

“It was more, like, it was just a funny story,” he says. “That’s what I told Ben [Lovett, of Mumford & Sons]: ‘I don’t play birthdays, but I have to play this birthday because the story’s too good.’” 

“People love covers, you know?” Rhoads says, sitting in Nashville’s W Hotel a few weeks later. This conclusion is recent, borne out of bewilderment and bemusement at his first viral success after 23 years in the music industry. His year-long, 14-song social media series “Kids’ Favorite Jams by Their Dads’ Favorite Bands,” in which he parodies some of his favorite bands if they were to cover some of the most popular kids songs, was inspired by exhaustion and posted to make a few friends laugh. But millions of plays, countless celebrity fans and major label interest for a full-length record has made this, if not serious, at least no laughing matter. 

Well, to a point: “As long I don’t ever take it seriously. That’s the main thing,” he says. “The moment I do, it’s time to stop.” 

Rhoads wears an unbuttoned green shirt and a slouch beanie, two weeks’ worth of white-ish beard complementing light blue eyes and a strong jawline. Despite the grey, he’s youthful, handsome and perfectly fitting in that “cool dad” category. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he moved to Nashville in his early 20s during the city’s renaissance, and over more than a two-decade career, he has become one of its numerous, often anonymous, success stories. Respected as an artist, he’s also in demand as a sync musician, a sub-genre in the industry where his music is licensed by TV shows and companies. (Grey’s Anatomy, The Blacklist and The Good Doctor are just a few of his 100 to 200 “cuts.”) But it was the birth of his first child, Ziggy Evergreen, in 2020 that would lead to his most widespread success. 

“Every single thing changes,” Rhoads says of the birth of his daughter. Whereas once he’d feel the muse strike between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., staying up working on songs in his downstairs home studio, now, with a toddler, he and wife Erin are rarely awake past 9:30. And when his daughter goes to sleep, so does the studio. 

Ziggy didn’t sleep well during those first few months, and Rhoads remembers breaking down in the shower one day, tears mixing with the tap water, the sleepless nights finally cracking his reserves. But that moment inspired him to write his first song for her. So he dried off and headed down to his studio, wrote the music, recorded the instruments, and paired it with footage around the birth and her early days in their home. “[It] was her ‘Hello, world, this is our daughter’ song,” he says. He posted it to Instagram, because social media is the home for casual art.

Fast forward to 2022. Ziggy is two and obsessed with Pinkfong’s “Baby Shark.” Its lyrics: “Baby shark / doo-doo, doo-doo,” ad infinitum. “That song is one minute long, so you hear it over and over again,” Rhoads says. Once again exhausted, he was singing it, dirge-like, to himself when it occurred to him: this sounds a lot like Radiohead. And so, as before, he headed to the studio — well, he asked his wife to watch his daughter, and then he went to the studio — and ripped out a cover of “Baby Shark” is if it were a deep cut on Kid A. But it wasn’t just the vocals; it was the instrumentation, the arrangement, the tones. “I had to stick it in a weird time signature and have all this noise,” he says. In short, he turned a practiced ear, honed after decades in the industry, to complete a parody of a children’s song because it was funny and he was sick of hearing it on repeat. 

After two hours, it was finished. Rhoads DIYed the video himself — almost an afterthought when compared to the music itself. I mean, there’s zero pressure, right? It’s just for Instagram, the place for thirst traps, vacation photos and his daughter’s original song. “I just thought a handful of people would laugh,” he says. “But it grew and grew. The more we did, the more people loved them.”

The same day he recorded his cover of Radiohead’s cover of “Baby Shark,” he also recorded a cover of Bon Iver-era Bon Iver covering Verna Hills’ folk standard “The Wheels on the Bus.” But the third, a Dave Matthews Band cover interpretation of “Sesame Street Theme,” marked a departure. Whereas the first two songs were primarily reliant on the musicianship of Rhoads for the joke, with the video being whatever he himself could throw together, “Sesame Street” added costumes — Rhoads donning his father-in-law’s old toupee — as well as auxiliary cinematography thanks to friend, songwriter and fellow Nashville success story Tyler James.   

James, whom Rhoads describes as a “renaissance man,” literally and figuratively took the camera out of Rhoads’ hands, allowing him to lean into the humor of the costumes and acting. It’s this type of volunteerism in the Volunteer State that is emblematic of how Nashville’s songwriter community has popped in and out of Rhoads’ videos to broaden and extend the joke. Peter Barbee, who performs under the name Among Savages, mans the puppets in “Sesame Street,” while the Counting Crows imagining of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” features artist Emma Fitzpatrick, who just happened to be in the neighborhood, as the titular character. “Every video, there was this wonderful accident that happened,” Rhoads says. 

The rise in level of video production wasn’t the only change; for some songs, Rhoads invents how an artist might riff on a classic with his own values. Bob Dylan’s “Old MacDonald” may hew close to the original in verse one, with whiny sing-song voice and cue-card lyrics a la “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but then the character goes off script, blaming factory farming and seed conglomerates for failing crops. “I did what Dylan would do,” Rhoads says. “I went into this whole diatribe against Monsanto.” The Hamilton-inspired “Itsy Bitsy Spider” goes even further: An entirely new song, from chord structure to lyrics, it throws in the children’s classic at the very end, almost to fulfill the project’s mandate. What began as a project narrow in scope has broadened due to popular demand. “There’s no real format,” he says. “The inspiration hits, and you go with it.”

To date, Rhoads has finished 14 covers, including the White Stripes on “Five Little Monkeys,” Weezer on “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” Pearl Jam on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” The National on “Bingo,” the Beastie Boys on the “ABCs,” and the Beach Boys on “The Hokey Pokey.” He records all the instruments himself, mixes it for a smartphone (its end destination) and collaborates with James and others on the filming. He now has a wig trunk and concept notes. And he does this while still working as a professional songwriter and remaining an engaged parent. 

And that leads back to Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, a birthday party in New York and Rhoads fearing he was about to get punched in the face. 

On April 26, Rhoads posted his pitch-perfect imagining of the band covering “You Are My Sunshine.” Rhoads nails the percussive guitar, the banjo overlay, the vests and pastoral setting, and the trademark harmonies of the folk-rock band. It’s amazing. It has over 6 million views on TikTok. And, because Nashville is a musician’s town and everybody has one degree of separation from every other musician, someone sent it to Mumford’s Lovett, who asked Rhoads whether he’d fly to New York for his daughter’s birthday party and perform the whole “Kids’ Favorite Jams” series for his musician-parent friends. “Is this a trap?” Rhoads asked, worrying some people just can’t take a joke. “He’s like, ‘No. That’s funny, though.’”

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And so Rhoads played his first — and possibly only — child’s birthday party, parodying one of its attendees to his face and surviving to tell the tale. It’s one more unexpected twist. Initially, Rhoads only completed 90-second versions of the songs to match the Instagram Reels format — after all, who really wants to listen to a full-length rendition after the joke’s been made? But he reads the comments: “People are, like, ‘Full versions, please,’” he says. “I stand corrected.” And what he initially wrote for himself and a few friends now has major label interest to bring the project to life and back it with marketing budgets that his original records (which, it should be noted, are very, very good) never had. Would he do a record release? Would he tour behind covers of covers? How closely can you match the mannerisms of Dave Matthews before he brings legal action for copyright infringement? And what does it mean to an artist that his or her most famous work might not be an original song, but instead someone else’s?

“These are questions my wife asks me, so you should really talk to her,” Rhoads says, laughing. “I don’t know. I just think of this as a fun, silly little thing.”

He knows most, if not all, of the songs have made it back to the parodied bands — that’s just how Nashville works. “Every single one of [‘Kids’], somebody will text me, and be, like, ‘I sent this to Matt [Berninger] from the National and he was cracking up,’” he says. And there are more “Kids’ Favorite Jams” in the works — he’s already bought an Ed Sheeran wig, and he’ll tell you all about the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” concept, which will include a Huckleberry Finn-style wooden raft, a hollowed-out piano and a major body of water. If the initial project succeeds, maybe he’ll do a “Mom’s Favorite Bands” edition, in which he’d tap some of his favorite women in the city to impersonate some of their favorite artists singing kids’ songs. 

Rhoads continues the series because it’s popular, sure. But it’s more than that. “Like any artist, you secretly crave attention, so when a bunch of people like it, well, I should do another,” he says. “But the main reason I kept doing them, I see so many friends, and they’re, like, ‘Those things bring us so much joy.’ That’s why I love it.”

Rhoads remembers a recent trip to Colorado. A guitar leaned against a corner of the room, and he picked it up and started strumming. The concept for the Mumford & Sons version of “Sunshine” came out quickly. “If it wasn’t [for that], maybe I wouldn’t have been in New York,” he says. But that was just the latest in a string of moments. Before that, it was an exhausted father humming “Baby Shark,” and before that, it was an improvised lullaby synced to iPhone footage from a first bath. 

And before that, it was fatherhood itself. It’s easy. It’s just a kid, he thought the day before Ziggy Evergreen’s birth. Then everything changes, a full permeation of life, in the best possible way. 

“I’m not sure I would have become the better version of myself had Ziggy not been born,” Rhoads says. “It made me want to be better, because I want her to be wonderful.”

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