Bobby Bare – Daddy, what if…
“He’s my father and I love him, but he’s also such a great singer and performer, and he picks all the great songs; nobody else can do what Dad does,” Junior said via phone a few days later. “I have to think that the reason he stopped recording is he just had no desire to go down to Music Row. But the musical world I’m in, I thought they’d totally get what Dad does. Nobody my age knows who he is or what he does, but somebody who likes something like Calexico would get Dad right away. And once we did get him away from the fishing poles, he was full of ideas and enthusiasm. He came alive in the studio and it was a blast.”
So the Bares believe that the family that plays together, stays together. They have at least since the 1973 Silverstein-penned breakthrough album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends And Lies, featuring 5-year-old Bobby Jr. singing a duet with his dad on the #2 country hit “Daddy What If”. Bares were everywhere at his AMA Mercy Lounge gig. Wife Jeannie, a fine singer in her own right, watched from the middle of the room, whooping and cheering and dancing her own private little diddy-bop when she got carried away. (“I’m always like that when either of them plays,” she confides backstage afterwards. “I figure if your wife isn’t crazy about you, who’s gonna be crazy about you? And if your mother isn’t crazy about you…”)
Though 29-year-old daughter Angelina, who was soon to be married, was kept away by her work for Dell Computers, 37-year-old son Shannon, whose insurance job just brought him back to Nashville from Birmingham, Alabama, was there. And though Bobby Jr. couldn’t make it, his wife Megan and their 10-month-old girl Isabella came with Megan’s father, Chip Young — a producer, engineer and guitarist to Elvis, Bare Sr., and nearly everyone else who worked in Memphis and Nashville in the 1960s and ’70s. Young also was a behind-the-scenes helper on The Moon Was Blue.)
Bare was born in Ironton, Ohio, in 1935; his own childhood family life was less cohesive, and doubtless helped shape his subsequent attitude. His mother died when he was 5, and with his father unable to provide for his kids, Bobby and siblings were sent to relatives and adoption agencies. Raised mainly by grandparents, Bobby was essentially on his own by age 15, doing day work and covering the country Top 40 in area bars at night.
In 1954, he and his steel player headed for Los Angeles with a fast-talker who said he could get them a record deal but really just needed somebody to provide gas money for his drive home from Ohio. Still, Bare and his friend found work in a club they went to the first night they were in town; before long, Speedy West got Bare his first record deal, with Capitol.
With producer Ken Nelson, he tried on styles from a remake of Buck Owens’ “Down On The Corner Of Love” to Elvis-inspired tracks using slapback bass and echo. When his singles went nowhere, he switched to Challenge Records. He hung out with Harlan Howard, who already had some early hits under his belt, and Hank Cochran, who didn’t. He and his guitarist took over a ballroom in nearby Riverside County, providing the house band and booking acts such as Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash. Then, in 1958, he got drafted.
When Bare returned to Ohio for induction, his fledgling career took a turn for the weird. With his friend Bill Parsons, he went down to King Records in Cincinnati to record a demo; Bare’s side was an improvised talking blues called “All American Boy” that sent up Elvis’ own Army career. The demo found its way to Harry Carlson of Fraternity Records in Cincinnati, who liked Bare’s tune but was told it was by Parsons. Carlson released it under Parsons’ name at the tail end of the year, and the single went all the way to #2 on the pop charts.
With Bare’s blessings, Parsons toured behind the single while Bare was on active duty. “I told him I can’t do nothing, I’m stuck here for two years, so just roll on, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, it’ll be forgotten in six months,” Bare grins. “And here we are still talking about it almost 50 years later.”
After leaving the service, Bare returned to Southern California, recording more in a pop vein for Fraternity. He went that route both because of the pop success of “All American Boy” — by now, Carlson and others knew the singer was actually Bare — and because the record-biz contacts he’d made in the Army were mostly L.A. pop figures. Though he never had a hit, he came close several times, and was a blooming songwriter who contributed three songs to the 1960 Jimmy Clanton/Chubby Checker film Teenage Millionaire. He’d just signed as a song-plugger and writer with red-hot Central Songs when Chet Atkins — at the behest of Harlan Howard, who was now in Nashville — asked him to record country for RCA. Bare leaped at the chance, and Atkins became his guardian angel. “Chet looked after me, protected me from everyone else at the company,” Bare says.
With a horn arrangement unlike anything else out of Nashville, Bare’s “Shame On Me” peaked at #18 country and #23 pop. Then, nearly a year later, Bare heard Billy Grammer’s single of a Mel Tillis/Danny Dill song called “I Wanna Go Home” on a rock station as he drove back to Hollywood from a fishing trip. He stopped his car right on Sunset Boulevard, tying up traffic for three minutes, to listen. “I thought it was the greatest song I’d ever heard,” he says. “I guess I was homesick for a home I never had.” The song, about a displaced southerner who was miserable working on the auto assembly lines of the Motor City though he insisted otherwise to the folks back home, struck a melancholy note of rootlessness and alienation that Bare revisited often in that phase of his career.
Recording in Nashville though still living in Los Angeles, Bare took the song to his next session, only to find Atkins had already chosen it for him. “He was uncanny that way,” Bare recalls. “Nearly all the songs I brought him that were early hits, he already had ’em on his desk when I got there.” They cut the tune and retitled it “Detroit City”; it shot to #6 country and #16 pop, and Bare had his career record on his second try. Even if it didn’t turn out to be his biggest hit, the plaint was an anthem for several generations of postwar southerners gone north in search of work. It still sounds great today, Atkins’ Nashville Sound production burnishing its timeless, almost traditional, feel.
Taking advantage of the urban folk boom, all of Bare’s singles through 1964 followed a similar course, and all crossed over to the Hot 100. “500 Miles Away From Home” lifted Georgia folksinger Hedy West’s arrangement of a traditional song done by modernists such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio. For Cowboy Jack Clement’s “Miller’s Cave”, Atkins and Bare relied on the obscure 1960 original by latter-day Memphis rockabilly Tommy Tucker (not to be confused with the R&B singer who hit with “Hi-Heel Sneakers” in ’64) more than on Hank Snow’s top-10 country version. “Have I Stayed Away Too Long” overhauled a Tin Pan Alley song previously recorded in 1944 by Perry Como and in 1960 by Jim Reeves.
Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” came via Waylon, who Bobby had befriended after seeing him in Phoenix. “I’ve always loved his slow songs more than his ass-kicking Outlaw songs,” Bare says. He first cut “Just To Satisfy You”, the A-side of Waylon’s second single for A&M, and then Atkins asked him to cut the flip, “Four Strong Winds”, as well. Jerry Reed backed him on the recently-invented fretless dobro so effectively that it started a mini-craze in Music City. Atkins soon followed Bare’s recommendation that he sign Waylon to RCA, too.