Bobby Bare Jr. – All in the Bare family
Bobby Bare Jr. was just 7 years old, but he remembers the last night the Ryman Auditorium hosted the Grand Ole Opry: “It was dark, and there were tons of people everywhere.” He was onstage, singing his duet, “Daddy What If,” with his father. They’d even been nominated for a Grammy, though the Pointer Sisters won that year. The Bares opened the Opry’s new home the following night, filmed a few spots for “Hee-Haw,” and then Bobby started school.
He returned to the Ryman some years later with Ken Coomer, who is now Wilco’s drummer. “We were bringing a piano in there for some cartage guys,” he says. “We’d be setting up Dolly Parton’s stage, or Brooks & Dunn had all these Marshall Stacks we’d set up. And that was the next time I walked in the door. Ken was talking about, ‘Hey, with Uncle Tupelo I opened up for Neil Young in Europe this year,’ and it just brought to my face how you can be that successful and still end up hauling pianos.”
Now 31, Bare has a degree in psychology, a penchant for mountain bikes, Waylon Jennings’ old bass, a freshly inked publishing deal (with Windswept Pacific), and a band. He lives where he has for some years now, in an attic apartment that is home to one or two other musicians, a large TV, a small collection of instruments, leftover furniture, fast food wrappers. It is comparatively neat, largely because his mother hired a cleaning service for his most recent birthday. A xeroxed photo hangs on the refrigerator, his father onstage at the Exit In with Neil Young, Dickey Betts and Shel Silverstein.
Bare Jr. doesn’t seem so much to live in his father’s shadow as to bask in his glow, and for most of five hours that’s who we talk about: Bare Sr. and his favorite songwriter, Shel Silverstein, who is now his coach. “I’ve seen it written he’s a good guy in a business where good guys don’t finish first,” Bobby says of his dad. “There is no doubt that us kids were the most important thing to him, and therefore I’m sure his career didn’t get to be as monster crazy.”
That may explain why the youngest fellow ever to be nominated for a Grammy (he was five when they cut “Daddy What If”) has been so circumspect about pursuing a music career. “I was a drummer when I was 13,” he says. “Then I got a bicycle, and I didn’t do anything musical for a while. Went to UT-Knoxville and got a degree in psychology, and then moved back to Nashville and immediately went on the road with Mel & the Party Hats [a still-gigging cover band]. Working lights, selling T-shirts, tuning equipment, running monitors, everything. I did that for two or three years, and the whole time I’ve been writing songs. Writing really bad songs for probably seven years. Really horrible.
“No, it’s longer than that,” he laughs. “Stuff that I didn’t even like playing for myself, hardly. Until it got to where I’d at least play it for a girlfriend or something. We did our first show in September of last year.”
That leaves out a lot of evenings running lights at the Exit In, playing bass in a metal band, a grunge cover ensemble he nicknamed Pearl Pumpkin Pilots, and the pitcher of water that accompanies him onstage. But it does all total up to the five-piece band that gigs regularly under his name. And it is an actual band, not the usual Nashville aggregation of unrehearsed friends and chart-reading acquaintances: Mike Grimes (guitar), Tracy Hackney (dulcimer), Dean Tomasek (bass) and Keith Brogdon (drums). Bare is losing the rhythm section to their other band, a Southern-rock outfit called Spoonful, and is unhappily auditioning potential replacements while simultaneously scheming to keep them.
Bare’s is a striking band, especially in Nashville. He has found a uniquely Southern way to recast grunge and a half-dozen other impulses in his own image. The opening song on one of his demo tapes, “You Blew Me Off” (the next line is “And it turned me on”) could almost be an early Mudhoney single, though he hadn’t really heard the band until some writer sent him a tape. That, and Mudhoney never thought to use a dulcimer in place of rhythm guitar.
Some of the songs (like “Mike Tyson”) tread dangerously close to novelty, and it’s not hard to tell Bare Jr. has Silverstein for a mentor. Nevertheless, he has found — is finding — a voice of his own that’s entirely worth listening to.
“I don’t know,” he says, looking away. “I’ll sit down and try to write rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s the funnest stuff, but as soon as I open my mouth or start strumming something, probably 60-80 percent of what comes out is 80 percent country. Real country, that I have a passion for.”
Later he will amend that, distancing himself from the c-word. “Call it Southern rock,” he asks. “I want to open up for 311 or something. That’s the kind of crowd that I like to get involved with. That’s where the fun’s at. It’s kind of like dad sold trucks, and I’m selling motorcycles.”
Whatever he’s selling, people seem to be buying. Bare Jr. is managed by Nashville newcomer Kip Krones, an American who lived in London for 16 years and managed the Moody Blues and the Outfield and people like that. Not precisely the connections that come with having grown up next door to George and Tammy.
And he is not unaware of that. Few struggling songwriters have Silverstein for a sounding board and get to hang out in the studio with Jerry Reed. And until this band, he fought against associating the Bare family name with his music.
“But it is my name,” he says, sighing. “Besides, the people I’m trying to reach have never heard of my father.”