Clip: Ben Ratliff on Bobby Bare...Sr. (with Jr.)
A Country Singer Returns to What Made Him a Star
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: October 25, 2005
The country singer Bobby Bare stood onstage under a low ceiling,
chewing gum and wearing a cowboy hat and running shoes. The battered
acoustic guitar around his neck belonged to his son, the rock musician
Bobby Bare Jr. Mr. Bare the elder is nonchalant, if not inscrutable:
on this small-room gig, it was hard to tell if he was excited, or if
he felt he had come down in the world, or neither.
"I usually perform naked," he drawled, smiling infinitesimally. "But
I'm wearing clothes to cover up all the hickeys." Pause. " 'Course,
they're all self-inflicted." He played the opening guitar line to
"Detroit City," his hit song from 1963 about a Southerner missing
home, and sang it beautifully in his lazy baritone.
Mr. Bare, 70, made his last album, "Drinkin' From the Bottle, Singin'
From the Heart," in 1983, and now plays mostly at casinos and state
fairs. This show, early this month, was at Grimey's Basement, a club
beneath Nashville's hippest record store, and the audience was an
unlikely scramble of generations and aesthetic points of view. Mr.
Bare's year-old granddaughter sat in the front row. His wife, Jeannie,
sang backup vocals. Representatives of the older Nashville were in the
crowd, including Chip Young, the guitarist who played on all of Mr.
Bare's sessions through the 1970's, and the songwriter Jerry Chesnutt,
who wrote "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" for Travis Tritt. But also in the crowd were
David Berman, the poet and leader of the indie-rock band Silver Jews,
who has been living in Nashville recently, and Ken Coomer, who used to
play drums with Wilco.
The occasion was Mr. Bare's surprising, sometimes stunning new record,
"The Moon Was Blue," co-produced by his son and out next week on the
Nashville-based independent label Dualtone. Recorded among Nashville's
underground, indie-rock musicians - including members of the younger
Bare's Young Criminals' Starvation League, Silver Jews and Lambchop -
it presents songs from Mr. Bare's era that he never got around to
There are ballads, vocal choruses and modest string arrangements,
references to the plush Nashville sound of the 60's and 70's. It is
full of old-school, wounded-male sentimentality. But there are
strange, otherworldly touches as well: loops of noise and feedback,
low whistles, a little too much reverb. The whole record is a game of
balance between respect toward the past and a little critical
"It's embracing this genre, sincerely, with one arm," explained the
junior Mr. Bare. "And then with the other arm, molesting it, without
ruining the songs."
In the 1960's and 70's, Mr. Bare Sr. was famous, with songs like
"Detroit City," "500 Miles Away From Home," "Dropkick Me, Jesus" and a
string of hits written by Shel Silverstein - also famous for his
children's books - that walked a line between sentimental and bizarre.
One of them, on the more sentimental side, was "Daddy What If," a
spoken duet with Bobby Jr., who posed cosmic questions to his dad
about love and death in a 5-year-old squeak.
By his mid-30's, recording for RCA with Chet Atkins, he started to
figure out what stratum of Nashville interested him the most. "When
other people were off at parties, chasing celebrity, I was hanging out
with songwriters," he said. "I really love songs and the way guys put
their heart into writing them. I'm about half an introvert anyway."
As the head of Return Music, a music publishing company, from the
mid-1960's to the mid-70's, he encouraged the loosening of Nashville
songwriting beyond formulaic topics. Billy Joe Shaver was signed to
his publishing company, but Mr. Bare's larger posse included Mickey
Newbury, Tompall Glaser, Mr. Silverstein, Waylon Jennings and a
Nashville D.J. known as Captain Midnight. (He had three pinball
machines installed in his Music Row office, Mr. Bare said, and there
would be epic sessions of pinball-shooting and songwriting, with most
of his visitors high on speed. He was never much interested in drugs,
though he took up chewing tobacco for the buzz.)
He operated under the certainty that songwriters were more important
than singers, and he promoted new ways of presenting songs. Mr. Bare
became the first country singer to produce his own records in
Nashville, and the first to make a concept album - "Lullabys, Legends
and Lies," a collection of songs written by Mr. Silverstein.
He and his wife live in a ranch house in Hendersonville, half an hour
northeast of Nashville, on Old Hickory Lake, where many country-music
potentates bought property in the 60's. (George Jones and Tammy
Wynette lived next door for a few years, during the happy stretch of a
doomed marriage.) His three children live less than an hour away. In
the summer, he night-fishes on Dale Hollow Lake, with the singer and
guitarist Jerry Reed. In December, he travels to Florida to fish and
watch football with Little Jimmy Dickens, the longtime Grand Ole Opry
star, who is now 84.
Casinos and county fairs are his only gigs. "That's about all I want
to work," explained Mr. Bare the morning after the show, over coffee
at his house. He has invited his son as well. "I'm fishing a lot."
Bobby Jr. cut in: "Now I gotta talk him into making less money."
"The thing about living to be 70 years old is that so many of my
friends are dead," Mr. Bare reflected. "Me and Ray Price are about the
only ones left. There's Kris Kristofferson, but he's a little younger.
Reed's health is not good. But he lives on the other side of town, and
we meet out here to fish."
Bobby Bare Jr. is tall like his father, with hunched shoulders and
curly hair, perpetually tired, friendly, forthright and easy to read.
The topic of many of his own songs is wretched living - not
necessarily for fun, but out of self-defeating compulsion. Still, he
likes to play Felix to his father's Oscar.
"They spend most of the summer together," Bobby Jr. said, in mild
protest over the Jerry Reed and the Dale Hollow situation. "They wake
up in the mornings, watch the Braves play baseball and fish in the
evening. It's a mess. They live like pigs."
"No, it's great!" protests the father.
"I've been out there, and it's a mess," insists the son. "There's
stuff thrown everywhere."
"Oh, well," sighs Mr. Bare. "Anyway, it's probably the clearest lake
you'll ever see."
He will not take credit for conceiving "The Moon Was Blue." That goes
to the younger Bare and another producer, Mark Nevers, who worked on
Nashville's Music Row for 10 years, recording Alan Jackson and others.
(Mr. Nevers is also a member of Lambchop.) They saw the potential.
"He's a real entertainer," said Bobby Jr., "and nobody my age or
younger knows who he is."
Mr. Bare seems completely set in his ways up to a point; beyond that
point, open, free, a little perverse. He loves the new record, space
noises and all.
"I told Bobby and Nevers, I'll just sing the song," he explained.
"Because if I throw my weight around, you're gonna wind up with just
another country record. It's great, because none of the strange sounds
are distracting, and it always makes me smile when I hear it."
What he likes most, he said, is the restraint, the delicacy of the
radical touches, like the feedback solo in the middle of the old
triplet ballad "Am I That Easy to Forget." Mr. Nevers made it with an
electric guitar, a kitchen knife and a delay pedal. It could have been
disruptive, but it isn't.
"It's kind of like being weird and not weird," Mr. Bare decided.