Bobby Bare – Daddy, what if…
History has not been particularly kind to Bobby Bare, at least so far, and in some ways this is hard to figure. After all, he stayed on the country charts from the early 1960s to the mid-’80s, a great run by anyone’s standards; from ’50s rock ‘n’ roll one-hit wonder to Americana geezer, he’s now on his fifth or sixth career. Depending on how you define these things, he may have been the first artist to produce his own records, and was one of the first to record thematic albums.
From the early-’60s folk boom and the refining of the Nashville Sound through the growth of the Outlaw ’70s, Bare was at or near the focal point of every major development in country music. He wrapped his flexible, grainy baritone around story-songs of every stripe, from knee-slapping novelties to soliloquies that came from some unsettling place out there beyond cold and lonely. His sorrowful ’60s gems “Detroit City”, “Miller’s Cave”, “Four Strong Winds” and “Streets Of Baltimore” were instant standards; in the ’70s he scored with upbeat hits such as “Marie Laveau”, “Dropkick Me, Jesus” and “The Winner”.
Yet today, while his closest friends and colleagues — from Harlan Howard to Chet Atkins to Waylon Jennings to Shel Silverstein — have all won recognition more or less in line with their accomplishments, Bare is largely forgotten, or recognized largely as the father of alt-country rocker Bobby Bare Jr.
There are reasons, however flawed, for this. Bare was never big on cultivating an image; to the extent that he had one, it was as the songwriter’s best friend, for his interpretive skills, or as the nicest guy in town, because he continued to get along with everyone in doctrinaire Nashville even when he was going against the grain. While many in his rambunctious crowd — Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon — were testing the limits of alcohol, amphetamines and cocaine, Bare practiced moderation, favoring beer over whiskey and sleep over speed.
He’s also a family man, married to the same woman since 1964 — he and his wife Jeannie met when she was the “girl singer” in a show he took to Reno — and around for his kids when they were growing up far more often than country singers normally are. He was never much for Music Row social and political hobnobbing, and he’s always appreciated a good songwriter far more than an executive (with a couple exceptions) or even a fellow singer (ditto).
When Bare saw the writing on the wall as Nashville’s youth movement picked up steam in the early ’80s, he chose to quit recording at all rather than bang his head against that wall. Though he participated in a pair of late-’90s collaborations on Shel Silverstein songs with Waylon, Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis (under the group name Old Dogs), Bare’s last official album under his own name was a 1983 Columbia release titled Drinkin’ From The Bottle, Singin’ From The Heart.
Until now — and again, family ties are a big part of it. At age 70, Bare may yet get the last laugh — as well as assert himself to a new audience — with the recent release of his striking The Moon Was Blue, co-produced by his son Bobby Jr. with Music Row exile Mark Nevers, using their cronies as the backup band.
Paradoxically, the album sounds very different from previous Bare efforts, while following the same guiding principles. The music — with its floating guitars and distortion, psychedelic sound effects, unorthodox background vocals and the like — owes more to Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals Starvation League than to country. And yet none of the weirdness distracts; it’s all used to frame Bare’s knowingly mellow and weathered vocals, which in turn put all the emphasis on the song, the lyrics.
Most of those songs are pop and country standards from the 1940s and ’50s (French cabaret singer Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young”, “Love Letters In The Sand”, “It’s All In The Game” and “Shine On Harvest Moon” are probably the most recognizable). But he also draws from more modern songbooks for pop fare (Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”) and country (Max D. Barnes’ “I Am An Island”).
As a whole, the album is reflective, or nostalgic, even — the work of a man who’s been around the block a lot more times than you and me. But it’s catchy and somehow contemporary, too. The two Nashville-Sounding Old Dogs sets (one was sold only on television) dealt almost entirely with aging, directly but humorously; the left-field The Moon Was Blue is a more rounded, less obvious, contemplation. Plus, it’s an object lesson in the notion that the child is father to the man.
“I knew it was very important to him that I do this, and he’s my son and I love him so I did it,” Bare declares one bright September morning. We’re sipping ice water on the screened-in back porch of the ranch house outside Nashville that his family has lived in for the last 35 years; it overlooks Old Hickory Lake, scene of many a Bare fishing triumph.
He adds that he went into the sessions with no idea an album might ensue; he was doing it as a favor to his son. “But then I was having fun,” he continues. “I didn’t remember how much fun it was to get into a studio with no pressure and just hit a chord and start singing with young musicians with all their energy and enthusiasm. All that weird stuff Bobby Jr. and Mark did with the music, those sounds made me smile. And it helped pull me out of the funk I went into after Shel, Waylon and Chet and everybody had died.”
Indeed, music-biz demographics weren’t the only reason for Bare’s long silence. The sudden death in 1999 of his good friend Silverstein, followed by that of Waylon three years later, slammed the door shut on more Old Dogs sessions. The death of Chet Atkins in 2001 added to Bare’s sense that he was increasingly alone. Since the turn of the millenium he has been content to play maybe 50 dates a year to his traditional country audience here and in Europe, less if possible, and to fish maybe 50 hours a week, more if possible.
The night before this interview, Bare had taken the stage with many of the musicians from the album — sans Bobby Jr., who was playing Seattle that night — to introduce his new music to the alt-country crowd at the Americana Music Association conference in Nashville. Decked out in blue jeans and a jean-jacket, black T-shirt and hat, he was in good voice as well as typically good humor. (“I usually perform nekkid, but I’m wearing clothes tonight to cover up the hickies,” he declared before launching his set with the dead-string guitar intro to “Detroit City”.) His reception at the packed Mercy Lounge confirmed what Bobby Jr., who calls himself “dad’s number one fan,” had suspected all along.