It’s been 40 years since Bobby Bare, Jr., sang on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, looking like a miniature version of Ron Burgundy in his white turtleneck and ’70s business suit. He was one of the most famous kids in country music, a gap-toothed 8 year old with a Grammy nomination under his belt and a legendary father, Bobby Bare, Sr., under his roof. It seemed logical – preordained, even – that the younger Bare would follow in his dad’s footsteps, eventually graduating from kid-friendly duets like “Daddy What If,” which the two sang on the Opry that night, to his own twangy hits.
That didn’t happen, of course.
Somewhere along the fast track to stardom, Bare Jr. took a left-hand turn. He wanted to blaze his own path, to play music that was louder and more mercurial than anything his dad’s fans would expect. He wanted to take the road less traveled by, in others words … and years later, that has made all the difference.
Now approaching 50 years old, Bobby Bare, Jr., isn’t particularly famous or rich. He is, however, a cult figure, armed with a larger-than-life personality, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a catalog of tunes that twang, rock and fuzz in equal measure. On his latest album, Undefeated, he dives deep into his own dirty laundry, shining a spotlight on the things most people tend to keep hidden.
“I got dumped,” he says, tracing the album’s inspiration back to a single source. “It’s not a breakup record. It’s a full-on dumped record. Since she didn’t wanna hear anything about my feelings or emotions, I had to put them here. Now that I’m playing these songs live, it’s like reading a sad-ass love letter over and over, every single night. But that’s what I do, I guess.”
Yes, that’s what he does. Pain can be an alluring thing, and Bare has spent most of his career turning the tragic things in his life – from the tree that crashed through his parents’ roof several years ago, nearly killing his mother (an accident immortalized on his last album, A Storm – A Tree – My Mother’s Head) to the various women who’ve loved and left him – into songs that are frank, fiery and funny as hell. He’s not looking for sympathy. He’s just looking for a way to manage the buzzkill.
“If I can get a room full of people to laugh and sing along to the scariest issues in my life, it kinda lightens the mood for me,” he admits. “It doesn’t make it less real, but it still helps.”
There’s plenty to be happy about, too. In “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost),” a new documentary chronicling the years leading up to Undefeated’s release, Bare spends his free time clowning around with his three children. The film ends with an endearing version of “Daddy What If,” performed with Bare Jr. on lead vocals and his pixie-cute daughter, Isabella, on the verses that Bare originally sang in the 1970s. Like her siblings, Isabella is infatuated with Dad, and he clearly feels the same way.
“Me and my three children have a band called Diaper Face,” he explains. “We play as often as we can in the basement, and every rehearsal ends the same: someone screams ‘No one is listening to me!’ and begins to cry and rushes out of the basement with tears streaming down his or her face. It’s unfortunately a lot like most of the grown-up rehearsals I have.”
People are listening to Bobby Bare, Jr., though. His rotating backup band, the Young Criminals’ Starvation League, includes occasional members of top-tier bands like Lambchop and My Morning Jacket. This summer, he’ll share a string of summer shows with Guided By Voices, whose frontman is a self-professed superfan of Bare’s work. And it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising country star becomes brave (or smart) enough to cover “My Baby Took My Baby Away,” a fantastic account of the things that happen once your spouse turns all of her attention toward your newborn … and takes it away from you.
Co-written with Hayes Carll, “My Baby Took My Baby Away” is the crown jewel of Undefeated, shot through enough humor and horns to make the message go down without too much of a bite.
“Hayes is amazing,” Bare enthuses. “I’m mad I didn’t write “She Left Me For Jesus.” Pissed. Pissed! That’s how I know if something is good or not; if it makes me wish I’d written it. And that’s how I knew Hayes would be fearless enough to co-write a song like ‘My Baby Took My Baby Away.’ I knew he wouldn’t wuss out. I’ve written songs with other people, and they’ll back down once they’re faced with ridiculousness or absurdity. They won’t have the balls to push something far enough to make it stand out, but that’s what you have to do. Because nobody notices it otherwise.”