Bobby Bare Sr. is the sort of congenially contented country veteran who plans his professional life around regularly scheduled fishing trips. Earlier this year, he put the rod and reel down long enough to join his friend, Norwegian star Petter Øien, on a little televised show called Eurovision Song Contest, but he didn't intend to let the Scandinavian detour keep him away from hooking tarpon for long.
"I thought I'd fly out of Tampa to Oslo," says Bare, "then do the show and be back in three days. Well, I got over there, and what I didn't realize was that this Eurovision thing is huge. Really huge. ... It's the biggest television show in history. Over a billion people watch it. I found that out when I got there. And I thought, 'Uh-oh. This is not gonna be a three-day thing.' "
Bare's certainly not exaggerating. Though you'd never know it here, Eurovision is indeed a really big deal all over the globe. Representing Norway, Bare and Øien dueted their way to the finals, and ultimately took third place. (Just for the sake of comparison, ABBA once won on the behalf of Sweden, and Celine Dion did the same for Switzerland.) It wound up taking Bare a full two weeks to get through the international media gauntlet and back to catching fish.
"I can knock around here and I'm a half-forgotten old fart," says Bare with a self-deprecating chuckle. "But if I decide, 'Well, I think for a couple weeks I want to be a rock star,' I'll fly to Oslo or Stockholm or something, and be one."
Bare has a low profile in the U.S. — he still draws sizable crowds to theaters and casinos — in part because fandom is more fickle here than in Europe, but mostly because he elected to put a dignified end to his major label recording career three decades ago. Since then, he's made a pair of indie albums: The Moon Is Blue, the reverb-bathed set his son, Bobby Bare Jr., produced with him for Dualtone Records, and the drolly folk-reviving Darker Than Light, out this week on the brand-new Plowboy Records. Plowboy was founded by Eddy Arnold's grandson Shannon Pollard, country music industry scholar Don Cusic and Cheetah Chrome, punk guitarist extraordinaire.
Bare may be a too-long-overlooked performer, but he's been sought after by several of Nashville's admirers of historical accomplishment and idiosyncratic artistic intelligence. He co-wrote with Bare Jr. for the younger Bare's cleverly skewed 2010 song cycle; he lent his warm, craggy insouciance to a remake of Tom T. Hall's children's album, to Chuck Mead's classic country rave-up Back at the Quonset Hut and to Jamey Johnson's Hank Cochran tribute; and he did an interview for Marshall Chapman's book They Came to Nashville.
Writes Chapman, "I still think Bobby Bare is the coolest guy I ever met in the business, but Bobby swears he's just shy."
It's true. For one thing, Bare has always shown signs of thinking like a perceptive outsider — even in the '60s and '70s, when he reached the Top 20 more than 30 times. He had a longstanding creative partnership with Shel Silverstein, one of the most eccentric songwriters ever to commute to Nashville, stocking entire albums with Silverstein's strange story songs. Bare even closes his new one with a talking blues adaptation of a poem Silverstein published in Playboy in 1979.
Its impish shock value hasn't faded in the ensuing years. Just before taking a Mephistophelian dare, the protagonist of "The Devil and Billy Markham" gives the following speech: "I just want to say, before I make my play, that if I should chance to lose, well, I will my gui-tar to some would-be star who'll play some honest blues, who ain't afraid to sing words like 'damn' or 'shit' or 'fuck,' and who ain't afraid to put his ass onstage where he makes his bucks. But if he plays his gui-tar safe, and sings some sugary lines, I'll haunt 'em till we meet in hell. Now gimme them fuckin' dice."
The way he sing-talks those not-so-sugary lines proves he's up to the song's honest blues litmus test. His wry, conversational delivery and easygoing irreverence have spoken to varied generations — the college audience he found in the late '70s, for instance — and they translate a lot better than much pre-rock sentimentalism does, and than much current, youthful acoustic earnestness probably will down the line.
Bare is clearly interested in making a pan-generational connection. He recorded a Tom Waits song for Darker Than Light, but it didn't make the final track list. "I'm a big Tom Waits fan since back in the — God! — the [early '70s]," he says. "I wanted to do 'San Diego Serenade' back then. Yeah, I'm a big Tom Waits fan. I went to see him in Minneapolis. He didn't know I was there, but I went to see him."
A song by New Wave-ish roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo — the dire confession "I Got Drunk" — did make the album, and the Austin-based underground icon stopped by RCA Studio B to sing harmony on his composition.
"Alternative songs, a lot of them are kinda like folk songs," says Bare. "Sounds like an old folk song: 'I was drunk and wandering around and called out your name.' Except in those old folk songs, what [the guy] did was stab the girl and killed her, and then they caught him and hung 'em."
Says Pollard, "Obviously he had a set of ideas and songs that he was curious about doing, but he was very open to listening to a bunch of new stuff that he'd never [heard]. I was making discs for him. I said, 'This may be a little weird for you.' He said, 'Oh, keep the weird stuff coming.' "
Chrome concurs, "He actually said, 'Bring me more edgy stuff.' "
"A lot of the older acts are kind of locked in to what happened at the height of their career," adds Cusic. "Well, Bare has always had an artistic integrity. ... He's always been out there trying different things. It takes a Bobby Bare to do stuff like that. I won't name other acts, but they couldn't pull it off."
Way back when, Bare briefly pursued pop before settling into a Chet Atkins-aided folk-country sound and a blend of distinctive singer-songwriter and trad-folk material, eventually getting Atkins' permission to produce himself — before well-known outlaw Waylon Jennings was doing any such thing. Then Bare sprang the first of his Silverstein-penned concept albums on his record label.
"All my first hits were based on the fact that I was young and the young pop girls loved me," says Bare. "You had to be halfway good-looking. The benchmark was Elvis. But my [philosophy] has always been what everybody else is doing, don't do it. Do the exact opposite."
I'm too sexy for my human, as I do my little turn on the manwalk.
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