THE BARE ESSENTIALS: BOBBY BARE IS BACK
by Michael Buffalo Smith
In the late '50s, he moved from Ohio to Los Angeles. Bare's first appearance on record was in 1958, as he recorded his own blues tune "The All American Boy," which was credited to Bill Parsons. A number of labels refused the record before the Ohio-based Fraternity Records bought it for $50. "The All American Boy" was released in 1959 and became the second-biggest single in the U.S. that December, crossing over to the pop charts and peaking at number three.
The single was also a big hit in the U.K., reaching number 22. In 1962, Chet Atkins signed him to RCA Records. By the end of the year, he had a hit with "Shame on You." The single broke into the pop charts. The following year, he recorded Mel Tillis and Danny Dill's "Detroit City," which became his second straight single to make both the country and pop charts. Bare followed up the single with a traditional folk song, "500 Miles from Home."
During the '60s Bare continued to mix country and folk, as he was influenced by songwriters like Bob Dylan, recording material by Dylan and several of his contemporaries.
Bare switched record labels in 1970, signing with Mercury Records. He stayed at the label for two years, producing a string of Top Ten hits, including "How I Got to Memphis," "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends," and "Come Sundown." Upon leaving Mercury, he recorded an album for United Artists called This Is Bare Country, which remained unreleased until 1976. After leaving UA, he re-signed with RCA in 1973, where released a double album of Shel Silverstein songs, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies. Not only did the album represent the beginning of a collaboration with Silverstein, it was arguably the first country concept album, adding fire to the outlaw movement of the '70s in the process and giving Bare his first number one single with "Marie Laveau." Bare released another record of Silverstein songs, Bobby Bare and the Family Singin' in the Kitchen, in 1975. Unfortunately, the singer's oldest daughter died shortly after recording the album; she was only 15. In 1977, Bare received a major publicity push from Bill Graham, the legendary rock concert promoter. Graham signed the singer to his management company, proclaiming that Bare was the "Springsteen of country music." Soon, the singer found new audiences at college campuses and in Canada. He switched record labels the same year, recording the self-produced Bare for Columbia.
Bare resumed his collaboration with Silverstein in 1980, releasing the live collection Down and Dirty, which contained two noveltyhits, "Numbers" and "Tequila Sheila." The following year, he released As Is, which showed that he was continuing to record a diverse selection of songwriters, including Townes Van Zandt, J.J. Cale, and Guy Clark.
Despite the fact that his work was consistently critically acclaimed, Bare's record sales began to slip in the early '80s, as the 1982 Silverstein collaboration Drinkin' from the Bottle, Singin' from the Heart and his 1985 record for EMI failed to launch any major hit singles. In the mid-80's, Bobby Bare dropped off the charts, becoming disenchanted with the recording industry. In 1995 he recorded Old Dogs, another Shel Silverstein written album, with Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings and Mel Tillis. In 2005, his son, Bare, Jr. brought Bobby back into the studio to record The Moon Was Blue.
During a posthumous induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Bobby Bare spoke of his late friend Shel Silverstien: "The words "dead" and "Silverstein" simply didn’t go together. We’ve got to ask ourselves, did he leave too early or have we stayed too late?"
We spoke with Bare about music, family, fishin,' Old Dogs and of course, Shel Silverstein.
Good to have you back, Bobby. This is one smooth album you have out.
I have been loving those songs all my life.
"Yesterday When I Was Young" has always been one of the top ten in my book.
Yeah, I have had two of them. That is one of them and the other is Melba Montgomery’s "No Charge." That song brings tears to my eyes when she sings that, and I always have my wife with me and it just always brings tears to my eyes. On "Yesterday When I Was Young," the musicians that they had on that had never heard those songs before and it just blew them away. Most of the songs did actually.
Those guys did a great job. That cross generational thing is amazing sometimes.
All that energy and they are very serious about their music. It was a good experience for me because I had not cut an album in 20 or 30 years. Some of these kids were not even born then.(Laughs)
Time kind of flies when you are having fun.
I was shocked and amazed when Bobby Jr. told me that I had not cut an album in 20 or 30 years. It seemed like just yesterday when I was with Shel (Silverstein) doing another album.
I was just talking about you with one of your old compadres, Jerry Reed and we were speaking of you and he was bragging about you.
Jerry's a good friend.
I understand that you were raised in Ohio, Ironton. They say that you even have a street named after you there.
I have several clippings out of the paper when so and so got a DUI on Bobby Bare Blvd. (Laughs)
As long as they don't hold you responsible. (Laughing) What was it like growing up in Ironton?
I grew up about 11-12 miles outside of Ironton, in a place called Prickly Ash. Back then in the 40’s and 50’s everybody was poor. I didn’t feel neglected, everybody was poor, just scrambling for work and just barely getting by. My dad was a heavy equipment operator and whenever the iron and all that stuff petered out there they were strip mining coal and he was running equipment in the mines, using bulldozers and shovels. He pretty much always had a job.
How old were you when you got bit by the music bug?
I guess around 10-12 years old. Some of the songs I cut and recorded, I had to have learned them around 10,11,12 years old. We had big bands like Frank Sinatra, Guy Mitchell, and Perry Como. We didn’t have rock and roll for sure back in the 40’s and early 50’s. I spent a lot of time around those hills, running around, and fishing by myself. I would always be by myself and singing those songs all the time. The kind of songs that you can hear once and learn. Every song was a big hit and I would hear it on the radio and run around in the hills singing. Then along came Hank Williams, Carl Smith and those guys and I thought it was great. During the war I was hearing Gene Autry and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" and Elton Brit singing "There Is a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere." I had to have been less than 10 and those songs were during the war years and it ended ‘45. I remember all those war songs.
Who were some of your early influences and who you really admired?
Well,I realized that I have always liked songs and that drew me to Hank Williams because those songs were good and I found out I could sing those songs. I have been a song person all my life. Songs got me first, then the artist.
We were just speaking about how it has been 22 years since you did an album, and then it kind of dropped off in the 80’s, what was that about, were you retired for a while?
Well, I took a realistic look at the record business as I have known it over the years, and as far as the radio and record companies were concerned I was over the hill and so were my friends. There was no outlet for what I was doing. Not that the music wasn’t good or records weren’t good, but the image I projected was too old for what the radio wanted to give exposure to. I could see this happen to all my friends. The ones that continued on would get their heart broken everytime they did an album. I could have gone ahead and done albums but there was no use for it because the record companies would not promote it. I realized that the young people do control the music business and that is the way it was and always will be that way.
People love country music and they want it to sound like it’s country too. It will always evolve around to that. I remember in the late 70’s when disco was big and country music was floundering. I told an interviewer from the The New York Times I that the music was so very boring. A lot of people were doing disco and that had taken over. That was just creating a huge demand for something that wasn't really good. If I was a young artist I would do just the opposite of what was going on and I felt quite sure it was right around the corner. Because right after that around the corner came Randy Travis. Here came the rest of the bunch and they were all great. I loved Travis Tritt.
You don’t hear a whole lot of Randy Travis now. It seems even he is being replaced by the guys with tight blue jeans and hats.
Well, you know if your ass don’t look good in a pair of tight jeans then you are not getting a record deal. Everything has gotten very visual now. The record company wanted to do a video and I asked them why? What are they going to do with that?(Laughs)
That was a great video they did of Johnny Cash...("Hurt") it was an emotional thing. They could do that artistically with you and use the great music of yours and get some beautiful stuff.
CMT is owned and run by MTV and they are all young people who do not have an idea who I am. I think they were airing the Glen Campbell Show and they ran it for a little bit and Waylon was on one of the shows and those people went nuts and crazy trying to find him - and didn’t even realize he was passed away.
Oh no, well they are young aren’t they? (Laughs) I just did an interview with his son Shooter Jennings, his son.
He and Bobby, Jr. are good friends.
Yeah, I was going to say, your son has really built a name for himself. It is amazing.
On his first album, Waylon and Jessie were living out here in Nashville, and Shooter is computer person and good with graphics and Bobby, Jr. was doing his first record and he would go out there and he would work with Shooter on the graphics, editing and all kinds of stuff. I remember I was out there once with Waylon and he saw them out in the place working together on all the equipment. Waylon said they were out there working together just like we worked together.
Yeah the second generation going at it. I wanted to ask you about one of my real heroes, Shel Silverstein. Your relationship with him went way back to when I was playing records as a DJ back in the 70’s and I would play "Daddy What If," and I wanted to basically get your thoughts of Shel Silverstein and of course bleeding over into the Old Dogs album. It is actually one of my favorite albums.
I met Shel through Chet (Atkins). Playboy had voted Chet the number one guitarist or something like that and of course Shel was a songwriter and he loved country music. Shel’s favorite singer was Ernest Tubb. He loved country music. He knew that Chet was probably the greatest producer at that time of country songs. He loved Chet and that is how I had met him. About that time I left RCA when Chet quit producing. I went to Mercury and worked with Jerry Kennedy, then my two year deal was up and Chet wanted me to come back to RCA. I told him there were too many producers over there and it is too confusing. He had four at that time I think. He said that he produced his own records and I had no idea that no one had ever done that before. I went back over there and wanted some songwriter to write me an album that had a thread going through it and connected and was more of less a concept type of album. I wanted some great songwriter like Harlan Howard or somebody to write me an album.
But at that time a record company was wanting to put out a two-hit-single record out, name the album after the hit, and put two hits on there and eight rejects. Nobody could come up with it. Harlan had a big party every year at the record convention at his house and all the great songwriters were there. At that time Shel was there and I told him what I wanted and he said that he would think about it. This was on Saturday night, and then on Monday morning he called me from Chicago-that was where Playboy was then- and he said he had gotten me an album written called Lullabys, Legends and Lies. I asked him when I could hear it and he said he would hop on a plane and got there in the early afternoon. We listened to the songs and they were very visual and clever. Oh man, I went into the studio and listened to them and did 3 or 4 of them. I just sat down in the studio with a guitar and a mike and had the band all around me. I switched it on them... I had the band playing with me as opposed to me playing with the band, the way it had always been done. You played with the band. I felt so good and it became a double album after we finished.
It was so different than what I had ever done before. Jerry Bradley told me that if he had known what I was doing he would have stopped it because it was too far out. But it happened so quickly that as soon as I finished it I gave a copy of it to Vito who was a promotion guy out of Atlanta and I wanted him to listen to it. He was a friend of mine and he took it back to Atlanta and listened to it and heard “Daddy What If” was in there. Being a sentimental Italian he just loved it and took the acetate over to WSB which was the largest station in the South at the time and they played it. The reaction was so phenomenal that it got back to the record company and they rushed that record out. It took off like a house on fire. That record taking off so quickly and being so successful that fast saved me a big battle with the record company to get that record out. They would not have wanted to put it out. But it had "The Winner" and "Marie Laveau" in it and lot of good stuff. It had a cut called "Rosalee’s Goody Cafe," that got so much reaction we tried to put it out, but promotional record singles were on 45’s and that thing was 9-minutes long and there was no way we could put it on a 45. It was a good album and Shel and I had so much fun doing that we did many projects together and had a ton of fun through the years.
I thought the world of him and loved all the stuff he did. The first time I heard of him was Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, he must have done all of those songs.
He was also in the business of doing movie soundtracks. One with Dustin Hoffman I know, and then he got hooked up with Dr. Hook.
Was it the mid-90’s ya’ll did Old Dogs?
Yeah, he was in town and we were talking about how radio was for old farts for us. Instead of whining about it let’s do a song for us. He wrote the album and then I demoed it. Then I got to thinking this would be a great project but I didn’t want to do it by myself. I went to Rick Blackburn at Atlantic Records and I had talked with Waylon Jennings and I talked to (Jerry) Reed and they would like for the three of us to do that album. Rick listened to it and loved it and wanted us to go ahead and do it. We got to talking about Mel Tillis and pulled him into it as well. We got in the studio and had a great time together.
Right after that we lost Shel. I talked to him the night before and he wasn’t feeling well and thought he had the flu. He was in the bed at 6:30 PM and he got up that night and just fell over with a silent heart attack. It was a real shock to me and I am not over it yet. He had not been to the doctor since the 1950's. He took care of himself, ate right, didn’t abuse himself with drugs and alcohol. He did yoga. I was sitting with some of my fishing buddies here and the were staying here and I got a call from Herb Gardner, the playwright from New York, and he said that he had some bad news about Shel and that he was gone. I just sunk. He was a part of my family and my kids had grown up with him. They had a bunch of cartoons that he had done. He would speak to my little girl like a frog on the phone. The fact is "Where The Sidewalk Ends," he gave me the manuscript of it and it is in a big roll. When we went on vacation one summer and I had brought a new van and the kids were entertained with that all the way down there. He related well with the kids. He worked very hard at that and was meticulous on his works. It was hard to get him to stop when he was doing something.
Let’s shift gears and jump back for a moment. I have read that you were one of the first of the Nashville crowd to embrace Bob Dylan when he came into Nashville and I wanted to ask if you had established a friendship with him at that time?
Not really, but I did record every song of his that I could sing. I picked up on him early on on one of his first albums. I would listen to his music a lot.
I saw him live in Greenville a few years ago and you couldn’t understand anything he said. He had rearranged all the songs and you weren’t sure what song he was singing.
The same thing happened to us!
One of our writers from Cincinnati, Ohio by the name of Derek Halsey did a great interview with Billy Joe Shaver in which he credited you with jump-starting his career and I wanted to ask how that happened.
Well, it was back in the late 60’s and Jeanne’s folks were living out in California and her Dad retired from the Police Department out there in Long Beach. So I thought I would start up a publishing company and get her parents to come out here and run it for me. Her Dad introduced me to Billy Joe one day and he was kind of strange and spooky. (Laughs) He came in the next day and I realized that his songs were really good and I signed him up as a writer to work with for several years and published all of his songs. Then my father in law had a heart attack and open heart surgery and had to retire. At that time I sold the publishing company to ATV, or two thirds of it. Billy Joe is a great writer. He is a writer’s writer. Some of his first songs - Tom T. Hall would come in and Billy Joe would sing a song for him - and at that time Tom was hot writing all his hit songs - then Billy sang him "Willie The Wandering Gypsy" and Tom just fell out. He recorded it. Then one night me and Billy Joe ran into Kris (Kristofferson) and we all went over to my house and sat up all night playing songs. Billy Joe and I had just written a song called "A Good Christian Soldier." This was when Kris was hot, and he said that he would like to record that tune. I asked him when and he said he was supposed to be in the studio in about half an hour. (Laughs)
I recently got that book that came out of compiling all of Shaver's lyrics. It’s amazing how many of his songs came right out of his life.
Oh, every one of them are about things that happened to him.
I was looking through some of my old albums and saw where you appeared on one of Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam records.
Yeah, that was always great fun. I love them old Southern rockers man. Charlie and all them. Toy Caldwell of Marshall Tucker was a friend of mine.
Really? I grew up around him and all the other Tucker guys in Spartanburg and knew him pretty well.
I had Toy on my TV show. His daughter and mine were best friends and used to hang out together. My daughter got married out here last week. She's 29, so I guess Toy's daughter is 29 also.
I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on your new album. What was it like to have your son producing you?
Well, to start with, he had been after me for a year or two to go into the studio and put down some stuff and I wasn’t all that interested. Then one day I realized that it was important to him for me to do this. I love my son and I said okay. He got the musicians together over there in the studio and we went into the studio and it was fine. I did it the same way I did Lullabys, Legends, and Lies. I went into it with all these young pickers and their energy is so great. I would hit a chord on the guitar and start singing and they would play. The singer goes in much, much later and sings along with the tracks.This I did in the reverse, it felt good and sounded good and took me into areas that I don’t think I had been before. I realized that I was going someplace that I had not been before. I realized that I was putting out more than I had in the past.On "Yesterday When I Was Young," on that chorus, it felt good to sing out with it.
You did another Shel song on there...
Yeah, "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," Oh man. I was touring Europe, and Mariane Faithful had had a big hit on that in Europe and I didn’t find out until years later that Shel had written it. I felt sorry for the girl in that song, because she had problems. (Laughs)
You kind of hope that some of these characters that Shel wrote about weren’t real. (Laughs)
Yeah, where everyone else stopped that was where Shel began.
Yeah, that was what we loved about him.What’s next on the Bobby Bare agenda?
I have been working and playing but mostly I am taking gigs where I can fish at the same time. I took a couple of jobs at Casinos in Minnesota this year so I can go small mouth fishing up there. Next week I am flying to Florida to do a fair there and hang there for a week and fish. I always go to Florida on January 2nd and stay there until the middle of February, and I fish everyday then.
Music and fishing, it can’t get much better.
Exactly. There is a theatre that I do every year and then I did the South Florida Fair in West Palm and then the State Fair in Tampa. Don Williams and I are doing a show in February.
Hope to catch your show soon, Bobby. Thanks for talking with us.
Thank you Michael.