The Bare Family tribute to Shel Silverstein
Twistable Turntable Man, a musical tribute to the songs of Shel Silverstein, was released by Sugar Hill last week, if my scratchy memory serves, and seems to have arrived without comment, best I can tell without thinking or looking too hard.
And so, bolstered by a fresh cup of iced coffee on an afternoon too hot for complete thought, here are some thoughts.
First, the iconic photograph of Shel Silverstein hisself — bald and hirsute, sweaty — has always seemed a better representation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek than Anthony Quinn. (I would note in passing, as a passionate fan of Kazantzakis’ writing, that Zorba is the slightest of his books, and that one should comment on The Last Temptation of Christ only after having read the book.) That is to say that I imagine Silverstein, who I never met, to have been at home in the illusory Playboy world Hugh Hefner sought to craft. A man of large tastes, and yet a man of taste.
Twistable Turntable Man is a joint production of the Family Bare, Bobbys Jr. and Sr. executive producing, for reasons which should be obvious but which I will explicate just the same. Bobby Sr. once recorded an album of Silverstein’s songs, arguably the first concept album in country music (I know there’s an argument, and a timeline, and I don’t care) called Lullabys, Legends, and Lies. He was a contemporary, a running mate, a songwriter at a time Bare Sr. was a hot performer and a savvy publisher of songs (and, again, I haven’t looked to see if their fortunes intertwined in that way). Later, he was Bare Jr.’s sounding board, occasionally tinkering with Bobby’s songs enough to get a co-writing credit, but mostly just sharing the craft with his friend’s son.
What the father/son co-production means, past both having entry points to Silverstein’s large and curious catalog, is a multi-generational set of friends and acquaintances who can be lured into the studio to celebrate that catalog. (And if you think you know his songs from his books of children’s poetry, you don’t; I very nearly played this for my seven-year-old before remembering how much ‘splaining I’d have to do.)
The truth is that My Morning Jacket plays quite nicely in sequence with Kris Kristofferson and John Prine; Sarah Jarosz fits right in with Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith. Peter instilled within me a fondness for tribute albums, but in truth I keep them mostly for one or two luminescent cuts, and most do not play well as albums.
The point, of course, is to draw attention to the writer being feted. One thinks of Silverstein as a humorist, as the author of “Boy Named Sue” and the like. And one thinks of him as a lover, not a fighter. But the songs here, including “The Winner” and “Sue” and “This Guitar Is For Sale” come from dark places, and I’m surprised by the accuracy with which Silverstein sketches a life of disappointment and casual violence. Yeah, toss “Queen of the Silver Dollar” into that thought, too.
Indeed, the two songs which are least engaging upon repeated listening are the kids’ songs, Dr. Dog’s take on “The Unicorn” (I’m sure I’m supposed to be hip enough to know who Dr. Dog is, but I don’t, and I’m too lazy to look or to care) and Ms. Griffith’s penultimate version of “The Giving Tree.” The problem isn’t Griffith’s rendition, which suggests her voice has aged gently into a lovely range, a fresh timbre full of discovery. The problem is that I don’t like the song, am disgusted by its story, though it seems to me a richly rendered parable of the generation to which Silverstein belonged.
Inevitably, Bobby Bare Jr. revisits “Daddy What If” with his daughter, Isabella. Which gives him another occasion to remind us that the Pointer Sisters took the country music Grammy for which he and his father were nominated that long-ago year. And so, though I like young Mr. Bare and have been served biscuits and gravy by his father, I will here for the first time confess that I believe the Pointer’s “Fairytale” to be the superior song. (I don’t know what else was nominated that year, and, again, I don’t care.) It is hard to imagine that song as a radio hit in any era, though it assuredly was; it’s not the kind of thing I’d want to hear more than a couple times. But it tickles me to hear Bobby sing it with his daughter. So there’s that.
Much of this is well beyond very good. Sarah Jarosz’s take on “Queen of the Silver Dollar” makes me wonder how anybody of her tender years can get her voice around the sadness of that song and have it carry meaning, but she does. The Boxmasters — Billy Bob Thornton’s band, though it no longer carries his name up front — does a more than credible job with “Sylvia’s Mother,” to the point where I’m tempted to go back and play his last record to see if he really is more than an engaging movie star. If I could figure out which box I’d put it in. Ah, well.
Ah. And My Morning Jacket, who bookend the album with “Lullabys, Legends and Lies” and “26 Second Song.” I’ve never quite understood why they were perceived to be an important band, in part because to my ears the Screaming Trees went there better before them, and that’s just a tribal loyalty I can’t shed. But Mr. James’ appearance in various unexpected places commands respect, and he has mine.
For the rest, there are the old voices, and they are, to a man, superb. Prine is spot on for “This Guitar Is For Sale,” Kristofferson is exactly right for “The Winner,” Ray Price is in fine voice for “Me and Jimmy Rodgers,” though I wonder how many of those pop culture references mean anything to anybody younger than me, and Mr. Bare Sr. is terrific with “The Living Legend.”
What did I leave out? Half the Pixies toying with “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” Andrew Bird’s title track (again, I like it more than I’ve liked his work in general), and Todd Snider’s “A Boy Named Sue,” which hews just a little too closely to Cash’s cadence, but that’s, perhaps, inevitable.
At the end of the day, Twistable Turntable Man reminds me what a careful, disciplined writer Shel Silverstein was, and makes me ponder his place in the Nashville pantheon. I don’t think of him as a Nashville writer. I think of him as a cartoonist and poet who dabbled. But he was rather more than that. He was a serious, first-cabin country songwriter.
My hat goes off in the waning sun to his memory, and to the Family Bare for putting it on my…iPod?