The scion of maverick country royalty takes on Music City
Nashville has long been the country music equivalent of Hollywood. It's an industry town where every waiter is an aspiring singer, songwriting is done by appointment in someone's office, and studios crank out tracks with the detached precision of a sausage factory.
Bobby Bare Jr. is a pure product of Nashville. As the son of legendary singer Bobby Bare, he experienced the best - parties at Johnny Cash's house - and the worst - a notoriously tepid club scene - that Music City had to offer. Bare has country music in his DNA, but he's also a wheezy-voiced maverick who plays in a Pixies tribute band (Is She Weird, Is She White) and was nearly clocked by Henry Rollins at a Black Flag gig when he was 18.
That might explain the affectionate irreverence Bare brings to "Visit Me in Music City," a tribute to his hometown, and one of the highlights of his second, and latest, Bloodshot Records album, From the End of Your Leash (he previously released two major-label albums under the moniker Bare Jr.).
While the song can be seen as either an indictment or a celebration, Bare says the song has been well received in Nashville. "They think it's pretty funny, they enjoy it," he says. "They're the ones who can deliver your pizza and sell you weed."
The song offered Bare the chance to team with his famous father, who helped Bare and collaborator Tony Crow finish off the tune. "We had most of it and he came in and crossed the 't's' and dotted the 'i's,'" Bare says. "One line that was his: 'Record deals fly in and out like happy bumblebees.'"
Bare's father, Bobby Sr., built a solid career within the Nashville system, but the iconoclastic humor of records such as "Dropkick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)" also made him appealing to the anti-Nashville "outlaw" movement of the 1970s. Bare Jr. made his recording debut, and earned a Grammy nomination, at the age of 5 when he duetted with his father on the Shel Silverstein-penned "Daddy What If." More than three decades later, he cites his father and Silverstein as his biggest Nashville inspirations.
"As far as stylistic songwriting goes, it's Shel," he says. "But, even before my dad knew Shel, my dad was writing songs a lot like Shel. 'All American Boy' is one of my dad's hits and it's very Shel Silverstein-esque."
Bare obviously absorbed the duo's tragicomic worldview, and he brings a punk-derived outrageousness to the equation. You hear it in "Valentine," a rocking, horn-driven admission that his girlfriend's humiliations drove him to murder; "The Terrible Sunrise," a bare-knuckles addiction saga in which he laments: "The devil's crawled inside your nose"; and most obviously on "Let's Rock and Roll," in which he contrasts pathetic details of life on the road with a hollow, ironic title-invoking chorus.
"I live in the floor of a minivan/driven by drunks across this land," Bare croaks in a cracked voice that suggests a countrified Paul Westerberg. He goes on to devote a full verse to the presence of vomit on the wall, before urging his listeners: "Let's rock and roll."
"I have like four more verses to that song," Bare reveals, suggesting that he has plenty of autobiographical material from which to draw. "It was just too long: 'People stand in line/just to kiss your ass/tell you that you are great/and get a photograph.' It's sad and miserable enough as it is. Why go on?"
Beyond Bare's gift for the lyrical twist, the most striking thing about From The End of Your Leash is the way his band, Young Criminals' Starvation League, subverts sonic expectations at every turn. For example, the album-opening "Strange Bird" begins with a ferocious drum roll executed with subtle brushes instead of sticks. The song kicks in with a wide-open mix that combines spare acoustic guitar with barely audible horns.
"It's less contrived that way. When you think things out really, really well, for me, whenever I try to do something really cool, I always fail. I think I get the best out of me when it's done before I have a chance to think about it and try to make it cool."
Bare's disdain for the predictable comes into play when he tours. He constantly changes his band's lineup, and on a given night he'll have "between two and 14 people onstage." He usually travels with a core group of four players, adding horns or other instruments when he meets up with musician friends in various cities.
An unabashed fan of the Austin music scene, Bare pondered a short-term move to Austin last summer, but ended up going to New York instead. Now, as a newlywed with a baby on the way, he doubts he'll have the opportunity to break away from Nashville in the near future.
"I have friends in Austin," he says. "You can really be yourself down there. There's just a lot more going on down there for what I do than in Nashville.
"Nashville has more talented musicians than any place I've ever been. I'll put it against any other city for talent. It's just people go to shows in Austin, and they don't here." •