Bobby Bare / Bobby Bare Jr. – Bobby Bares, all
Bobby Bare has gone fishing two hours east and a jog north of Nashville. Has been there for a couple weeks now, and shows absolutely no interest in coming home. The fish are reasonably cooperative, the cabin’s free — courtesy an old friend — and it’s plenty peaceful.
He’s earned a rest, for there’s not much he hasn’t done — and done well — in the music business. Six months younger than Elvis, Robert Joseph Bare came from Ironton, Ohio, in the hills hard against both Kentucky and West Virginia. He cut his first hit single in the late ’50s, shared a place with Willie, hired Tom T. Hall to play bass, raised his kids next door to George and Tammy, was hip enough to hang with the Outlaws and good enough to be marketed by Bill Graham as country’s Bruce Springsteen. He also hosted one of TNN’s most important early shows, “Bobby Bare And Friends”.
Along the way, he recorded 59 Top-40 country hits (four of which crossed to the pop charts) over three decades. Bare co-wrote “500 Miles Away From Home”, but is better known for his versions of “Detroit City”, “Miller’s Cave” and “The Streets Of Baltimore” — and for his unerring taste in songwriters, from Mel Tillis to Harlan Howard, Tom T. Hall to Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein to Billy Joe Shaver (who originally wrote for Bare’s publishing company).
His son, Bobby Bare Jr., was 5 when he had his first hit, a duet with his father called “Daddy What If”. It went to #2 on the country charts, and earned the Bares a Grammy nomination in 1974 (they were beaten by another family act, the Pointer Sisters). “I’d like to introduce you to the next superstar,” Bare says as the song opens. “Twenty years from now, he’s gonna be so ashamed of what he has done on this record, that he’s probably gonna sue me. And he and all of his friends are gonna be sittin’ around stoned, and he’ll say, ‘Look what the old man made me do.'”
The song was the commercial centerpiece to Bobby Bare’s 1973 landmark work, Lullabys, Legends And Lies, a double-album of Shel Silverstein songs, produced by Bare himself. An artist producing his own record at that time was rare; a double-album of songs by one writer was unprecedented. The album’s second single, “Marie Laveau”, became Bare’s only #1 country song.
Bare Jr. didn’t have another hit until 1998, by which time he’d served an apprenticeship running lights and playing bass for various Nashville cover bands, only to emerge a rock singer, and a budding songwriter. True, “You Blew Me Off” from 1998’s Boo-Tay (on Sony’s Immortal imprint) was only a regional hit, but the album also included a song co-written with Silverstein. Brainwasher didn’t do quite so well two years later, his dulcimer player quit, and, like his father, Bare Jr. decided it was time for a left turn.
Enter Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals’ Starvation League, due July 9 on Bloodshot. It’s an acoustic album, performed by a supporting cast including Paul Burch (drums), Paul Niehaus (steel guitar), and William Tyler (acoustic guitar). His father has a guest vocal slot, a horn section stopped by for a few tracks, and the final cut is an almost-lost Shel Silverstein gem, “Painting Her Fingernails”.
Like Silverstein, who coached young Bare through his songwriting adolescence (that is, those first two records), Bare Jr. is an adroit humorist with a sharp eye for character. This is not easily done. We tend not to take humor, well, seriously, though it is terribly hard to do well, and is often borne of pain.
It’s also hard to take Bare Jr. seriously, for he comes armed with a big, wide grin and floppy hair and baggy shorts and boundless enthusiasm for every kind of music, including country. His songs are far more complex than his demeanor suggests, and so is he. Once, years ago now, he cautioned: “You don’t want to be around me when I’m drinking.”
We meet at a transmission shop. Bare Jr. comes equipped with a notebook full of questions for his father, a copy of the Hives record he picked up on tour in Europe, and stories about writing with Guy Clark. I’ve brought along a copy of actress/singer Mary Kay Place’s version of “Painting Her Fingernails”, a song his father recorded for an album that never came out. Bobby couldn’t remember the melody when he went to cut it and had to have his dad sing the song over the phone.
Young Criminals is a kind of musical synopsis of all that. Bare Jr. is figuring out how to use his voice, which is never going to be pretty but can be wonderfully expressive. And he’s learning how to write, his lyrics alternately comic and poignant, and increasingly well-crafted. Yes, “Flat Chested Girl From Maynardsville” is funny, but it’s also a devastating portrait. Yes, “Dig Down”, his note to those who rocked before, is a glib apology for limp rock (“My Fender is just a painted board/And if I light it on fire I become such a fucking bore”); it is also a fair summation of the state of rock ‘n’ roll.
Mostly it’s just a really good record, through and through. Though Bare Jr. says he intends Young Criminals as a detour, it seems rather more. Perhaps, without necessarily trying, he’s figured out how to match the energy of punk rock with the lyrical sophistication of classic country.
It helps that there’s always another girl ready to break his heart.
And he’s hungry.
Half an hour from his father’s lair, Bare Jr. stops to pick up flour, and chocolate milk for the road. Truth is, his dad’s more interested in seeing Junior, making sure he’s fed — scrambling his last eggs, stirring up gravy to go on the biscuits — than he is in talking about the old days. (Or about the broken transmission in Junior’s van.)
Bare’s had a tough year. His last album, Old Dogs, a collaboration with Shel Silverstein, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed, did well enough until Atlantic Records closed its Nashville office. Then Shel died, and Waylon, and Harlan Howard, and it’s just cold enough today that Reed doesn’t want to come fishing, and nothing on CNN is altogether cheerful.
Father and son are big men, but neither pushes his size on you and you don’t really notice until they hug. And, yes, it’s a bear hug. Of course it’s a bear hug. But dad was gone some, growing up, and Bobby wants to get the memories straight.
BOBBY BARE JR.: What made Hank Williams stand out when you first started hearing him play?
BOBBY BARE: I have thought about that for years, and now I know what it was: The energy. He had an energy that nobody else had, at that time. It was a desperate kind of energy.
Bobby: But it was the most rock ‘n’ roll thing at that time.
Bare: It was the closest, as a matter of fact. And then Elvis came along. That’s the first time that anybody had ever captured high-powered energy. And that was rock ‘n’ roll. That was teenage blatant energy.
Bobby: Did you think what Elvis was doing was black music? Or did you just think it was high-powered rockabilly?