By Colin Woodward
On Memorial Day weekend, Bobby Bare, Jr., played the White Water Tavern for the first time. I was surprised to hear it was his first show at this legendary Little Rock venue. In any case, I had a great time. The White Water’s stripped-down, deep-fried, no-backstage aesthetic suits Bobby very well. With him was the group Memphis Dawls–a female group from, you guessed it, Memphis–who are working on their first album.
Bobby Bare, Jr. (born in 1966) is the son of country star Bobby Bare, who was elected to Country Music Hall of Fame last year. Bobby Bare, Sr., is 79, but he still tours. He’ll be at the Johnny Cash Music Festival this fall. And his son is similarly fond of the road.
Bobby, Jr., plays country-sounding tunes, sometimes. But his music defies easy categorization. Nashville is traditionally associated with the old school, Grand Ole Opry establishment. But it’s also home to many alt-country acts that–like Bare, Jr., Surfer Blood, and Diarrhea Planet–blend punk, country, alternative, and rock and roll.
I’ve been a big fan of Bobby Bare, Jr.’s music since 2010, when I saw him open for Drive-By Truckers on Halloween weekend in Richmond, Virginia. During his set the National, Bare played a terrific new song he had written called “Rock and Roll Halloween.” Before seeing him in October 2010, I must say, I had never heard of Bare, who plays with a seemingly ever-changing lineup called the Young Criminals Starvation League (the only constant–at least the three times I’ve seen him–is his bass/lead/pedal steel guitarist).
Since seeing him in Richmond, I’ve been hooked on his music, and I’ve had the good fortune to see him twice in Little Rock. Once, at a memorable show at Juanita’s, Bare got a very late start for a crowd that was only slightly larger than the number of musicians on stage. Despite what must have been a disappointing turnout, Bare put on a good show. My wife–who usually steers clear of whatever I listen to–enjoyed it quite a bit.
Bobby began his recording career with two solid late-90s alternative albums, Boo-tay and Brainwashed, which he issued under the band name Bare, Jr. On both of these records, Bare gives us a guitar-heavy, alternative rock album. His best work was to come, but on his first album’s first track, “Nothin Better to Do,” Bare shows his gift for melody and unexpected musical choices by inserting some mandolin playing. What you don’t find on his early records is much of a country influence. The exception is the funny, acoustic track “Why Do I Need a Job” on Brainwashed, where Bare says he is dating a stripper named Abilene who allows him to to play in his band and not work. “The hours are great/I’m never late,” Bare muses.
Brainwashed is in many ways the creature of a time when the CD reigned supreme. The liner notes, for example, which feature photographs of Bare in a chicken costume, are far more elaborate than any of his CD packages since then. And why not? In the late 90s, record companies were doing better than ever. Guy in a chicken suit? Sure. While Brainwashed is not a great album, it has lots of energy, and shows a musician who is having a lot of fun in the era when people would pay $18 for a new CD.
On his third album, Young Criminals Starvation League, Bare went in a very different direction from his first two albums. He also found his voice as a composer and musician. On Young Criminals, Bare turned the guitars way down, adopting a more “singer-songwriter” persona. The album benefits from its home-made, demo-like feel, with Bare’s booming voice carrying most of each song’s weight.
Although Young Criminals was recorded only a few years after Brainwashed, it sounds far less dated. The lyrics are also more inspired. Like his contemporary Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers, Bare–as he shows on Young Criminals–can write songs that are often funny and sad at the same time. Take, for example, “Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville.” The title alone is funny, but in it, Bare paints a convincing and moving portrait of a young woman who sits in her room most of the time, hoping somebody–anybody–will take notice of her. The girl, he tells us, sells all her CDs for weed and Ecstasy and laughs as she kicks her cat into a fan. At the end of the song, the girl from Maynardville falls prey to the kind of sexual frustration that becomes sexual abandon. “Please take anything!” she wails. Bare has no delusions about the despair of people growing up, especially those who do so in cultural wastelands like Maynardville and Chattanooga. Also impressive on Young Criminals is “Dig Down,” on which he chastises his musical predecessors–not for letting him down, but for being too good. Artists like Pete Townshend, the Beatles, Hendrix, Black Francis, and Chuck Berry, he complains, sucked all the juice out of popular music, leaving nothing for Bare’s generation but the rind.
A reviewer at amazon.com has called Bobby Bare the last of the great rock and roll star’s. I’m not sure about that, but Bobby certainly looks the part of the working musician. At the October 2010 show in Richmond, Bobby was husky, unshaven, and kept coughing like a three-pack-a-day smoker. I figured he could match bong hits with anyone in the audience and keep pace drinking beer with all of Drive-By Truckers. All the ingredients for an alt-country rock star. Bare can play and look grunge.
Yet, he is intensely professional. Yes, at the White Water, he drank onstage and his keyboardist jumped around like a three year old at the zoo. But Bobby was all business. He played many of his best songs, most of the best tunes off the new album (including the wonderful “I Don’t Want to Know”), and one of his father’s songs. He also knows how to make banter with the audience. I’ve always appreciated Bare’s sense of humor, which no doubt helps during long trips across the South. At the White Water show, he told the crowd that Chattanooga is an Indian word meaning “On the Way to Atlanta.”
For me, Bare’s best album is the wonderful A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. The CD begins with the odd, catchy opening track “Your Goat’s On Fire,” which sounds reminiscent of the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” From there, things only get stranger, from the suicidal despair of “One of Us Has Got to Go” to the swinging chorus of “Rock and Roll Halloween,” where Bare describes a Halloween night in Atlanta where he saw pregnant nuns and brides, hooker nurses and cops, and “saw Elvis make out with Jesus in a yellow limousine.”
It’s musicians like Bare who show that alt-country acts–including Jason and the Scorchers, Drive-By Truckers, The Blasters, and Bottle Rockets–did as much to save country as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the other grunge groups did to save rock. And really, it’s guys like Bare who most carry on the rock and roll spirit, while some of the best 90s grunge acts have either disbanded, died, or faded out. When Bobby isn’t engaging in extremely black comedy (as on “One of Us Has Got to Go,” about a tragic love triangle), he is unapologetically goofy. “Monk at the Disco” (from Young Criminals), speaks of a monk who says a prayer for the skinny girl with curly hair, who “forgot to put on her underwear.” The monk later has a drink spilled on his robe after somebody had tried to sell him cocaine. “Monk at the Disco” is the type of song–I am confident in saying–that only is hatched in the brain of Bobby Bare, Jr. I am not the kind of person who remembers lyrics easily, but Bare’s stick with me.
Bobby Bare, Jr., was making records with his dad around the age most of us are getting their first at-bats in Little League. You can hear him on the 1973 tune “Daddy What If,” which may be the first song ever sung with vocals by a tadpole. Eventually, though, Bobby Jr.’s voice would drop. And if he seems to live in his own surrealistic southern comic world, his father sang some pretty goofy songs, too, such as “Drop Kick Me Jesus,” which apparently is Bill Clinton’s favorite song. “Drop kick me Jesus, through the goalposts of life,” goes the chorus. It’s that kind of attitude toward Jesus that directs Bobby Bare, Jr.’s work.
After listening to and enjoying Young Criminals Starvation League, I moved on to his 2004 album, At the End of Your Leash. Leash features one of Bare’s best songs, “Visit Me in Music City,” about the Nashville scene, but overall, the album features good early and later songs. The middle (“Your Favorite Hat,” “Don’t Follow Me,” “Let’s Rock and Roll”) is less inspired and feature Bare with a female singer who is so high-pitched that it sounds like Bare is singing with Elmo from Sesame Street (I can very easily picture Bare, Jr., on Sesame Street singing with Elmo, actually).
On his 2006 album The Longest Meow, Bare recorded all the tracks in an eleven hour session. The record isn’t as personal sounding as Young Criminals Starvation League or A Storm, A Tree. But the fact that it was quickly recorded gives it a “live” feel that is more ragged and energized than most albums you’ll hear. The Longest Meow has excellent moments–“Gun Show” is one of the record’s highlights. It really gets cooking toward the end with “Snuggling World Championships,” “Can I Borrow Your Cape” and “Stop Crying.” The Longest Meow was a move forward for Bare. It again showed his ability to blend–as have great classic rock groups like the Who and Led Zeppelin–shades of light and dark in his songs, not just lyrically, but also musically. The more gentle, acoustic numbers contrast well with the hard rock numbers.
Throughout his career, Bare has shown his ability to combine country, rock, folk, grunge, and rockabilly into one bizarre stew. Recently, Bare was featured in a documentary, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost, which covers his tour for A Storm, a Tree. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.