This article originally appeared in the November/December 2005 issue.
It’s nearing midnight, and Bobby Bare is holding court in the crowded green room of The Mercy Lounge, one of Nashville’s premier venues. He’s about to showcase material from his new record, The Moon Was Blue, for a house packed full of Americana Music Association conventioneers, most of whom weren’t even born when Bare had his first hit, “The All-American Boy,” in 1958.
“Holding court” is too grand a word for Bare, whose humble manner and warm handshake aren’t very royal. If anything, Bare is shy and eminently cool. Sycophants and suck-ups make him nervous, but backstage at The Mercy Lounge, he’s happily engaged in conversation with Lawson Little, a renowned photographer whose seminal work is set in Key West, Florida during the ‘70s.
In 1978, Bare spent some time (and some brain cells) in Key West working on his Down & Dirty (Live) record, and Little has the photos to prove it. One particularly telling shot shows Bare and frequent collaborator Shel Silverstein–a Key West regular–sprawled on the steps of Silverstein’s Caroline St. apartment looking toasted and content, as befits the island’s woozy ethos. It’s striking how little Bare has changed since those days. There are a few more lines on his face now, and maybe he’s lost a stride or two, but the twinkle in his eye and the wise yet wary smile remain the same.
It’s appropriate, then, that The Moon Was Blue reflects the sounds of Bare’s heyday. A collection of standards, the record recalls the countrypolitan sound of Bare’s hits–such as “Miller’s Cave,” “Detroit City” and “500 Miles From Home–which were recorded before Nashville became ashamed of lush background vocals and lightly-brushed snare drums. Like those great hits, The Moon Was Blue is an effortless, sophisticated blend of country and pop that defies the music industry’s overwhelming fondness for trends.
“All I did was sing a bunch of good songs,” Bare understates. “[My son] Bobby Jr. just said, ‘Can you think of any old songs you like?’ and I said, ‘sure.’ So we dug up some of my favorites, and I would start singing. One of them, “My Heart Cries For You,” I just hit a big chord and [pianist] Tony Crow fell in with me, and I think that’s about all that’s on there. I left out a verse, but I was just singing something that I liked.”
Bare’s abridged version of “My Heart Cries For You,” which was written by Percy Faith and Carl Sigman (and recorded by everyone from Lawrence Welk to Ben E. King), is typical of The Moon Was Blue. Recorded and produced by Bobby Bare Jr. and Mark Nevers, the record relies on classic pop-country instrumentation and light-handed performances. On the surface, such arrangements might seem atypical of Bare Jr. and Nevers, who are best known in indie rock circles–Bare as the leader of his namesake band, and Nevers as one of the creative minds behind the rambling collective known as Lambchop. In fact, Bare Jr.’s recent work with The Young Criminals Starvation League has taken a decidedly country turn. Likewise, countrypolitan producers Billy Sherrill and Owen Bradley have always heavily influenced Lambchop.
Aside from occasional feedback and oscillating beeps and buzzes–both of which are typical of Nevers’ recording style–The Moon Was Blue sounds as if it were recorded in 1973. That was the year that Bare began collaborating with Silverstein, a fruitful relationship that lasted until the latter songwriter’s death in 1999. The fledgling partnership’s first record, titled Bobby Bare Sings Lullabies, Legends and Lies, was comprised entirely of Silverstein’s songs. But Silverstein was more than a songwriter. A wry observer of life, he was first known as a cartoonist whose scratchy line drawings graced the pages of magazines such as Look and Playboy. (Playboy included some of Silverstein’s work in every issue from 1957 through the mid-‘70s.) Later, Silverstein wrote popular children’s books (who’s childhood library didn’t include copies of his Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree –as well as songs. When he and Bare got together, Silverstein had already written quirky hits for Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”), The Irish Rovers (“The Unicorn Song”) and Loretta Lynn (“One’s On the Way”). Eventually, he would compose the equally quirky “Sylvia’s Mother” and “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” both of which were top ten hits for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show.
By the time he met Silverstein, Bare also had a strong track record. After the success of “All American Boy,” which was recorded under a pseudonym (Bill Parsons), Bare was drafted. Upon leaving the Army, he moved to Nashville and set out to establish the unique blend of country, pop and folk music that distinguishes his later work. The early years were heady, as Bare found himself rooming with two other future songwriting legends.
“Everybody knew everybody back in the ‘60s; it wasn’t a very large group,” recalls Bare. “You couldn’t wait to get with everybody and sing your new song. I’d been up in Ohio and came back [to Nashville]. I couldn’t wait to get down here. We had a room over at the Andrew Jackson Hotel-me and Roger Miller and Willie Nelson-and a big tub full of beer. I came down, and I think I had 5 or 6 new songs. By the time I got finished listening to Willie, Roger and Harlan Howard sing their new songs, I might have sung one or two of mine. They were all really good at taking a guitar and selling their songs. You had to be. That’s was the first contact you had with somebody recording your song, so you had to be able to sell it. Grab your guitar and sell it to them right then. You wouldn’t walk into an office; nobody had offices back then. You’d run into them somewhere. Sometimes you had to sell it to them a cappela . Now they just use demos that sound just like records.”
“Of course, the greatest country writer I ever knew was Harlan Howard,” Bare continues. “Harlan and I started out together in California in the mid ‘50s…Lord have mercy. Back then, we didn’t know Harlan wrote songs. He was just hanging out in the club. We found out later that he was an aspiring songwriter. He’s written hundreds of songs that are unbelievable (“I Fall to Pieces” and “Heartaches by the Number,” to name two), and his work ethic was great. He would get up at 5 or 6 in the morning, make coffee and write until noon. He’d just crank them out. He was the greatest.”