BOBBY BARE JR.
Tractor Tavern, 206-789-3599, $8
9 p.m. Sun., Nov. 17
Bobby Bare Jr. is no stranger to celebrity. The son of maverick country pioneer Bobby Bare ("Detroit City"), his Nashville elementary-school classmates included the progeny of Johnny Cash and Barbara Mandrell. "We were just from that side of town where everybody lived," he demurs. By "everybody," he means country music's biggest stars; the era's most famous couple, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, were his neighbors. So it's refreshing to discover that Bare can still sound as dreamy as any Sinatra-era bobby-soxer when the topic turns to one of his favorite artists.
"I'm a huge Morrissey fan," announces Bare, who puts a twangy spin on the Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make" on his new solo album, Young Criminals' Starvation League (Bloodshot). "I stood in the front row when he played the Grand Ol' Opry." That said, Bare's ardor does know limitations. "It's embarrassing to stand next to all these kids with tears in their eyes holding up posters of Elvis while throwing flowers. And I know inside, he's laughing. To sing, 'I smoke cuz I'm hoping for an early death/And I need to cling to something!' That's funny!"
"He's a great, original singer, and you really want to listen to his words," observes Bare. "I'd say 90 percent of the bands I see, when I leave, I couldn't tell you what one of their songs is about. There are a lot of people who hide behind volume or write lyrics that only sound like they're supposed to mean something."
"God, there's that Ryan Adams song . . . ," Bare continues, bursting into a verse of "Come Pick Me Up" from Adams' solo debut, Heartbreaker: "'Take me out . . . screw all my friends . . . ' —that's so great. But then he gets to that part, 'I wish you'd make up my bed/So I could make up my mind.' That means nothing! You motherfucker, you led me to nowhere!"
BOBBY BARE JR. is not hiding behind deceptive wordplay or an amp cranked up to 11. At least, not this time out. In marked contrast to the sound of his eponymously named roots-rock band, Bare Jr.—which has been compared to everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Nirvana—Young Criminals' is a very informal affair, recorded in just seven days in co-producer Mark Nevers' living room
"For the first two or three months, I hated this album," Bare confesses. "I just felt so naked and vulnerable." Initially, Bare thought the results were too formless, "because whatever I thought of doing went straight to tape at that moment vs. standing back and asking, 'Does that really fit?'" But ultimately, he feels the spontaneity paid off. "I hope to make every record from here on out that way."
The pared-back arrangements of Young Criminals' not only place greater emphasis on Bare's charismatic yelp but also his lyrics. Yet, with the exception of "Dig Down," in which he decries Pete Townshend, the Beatles, and Black Francis for exhausting the pool of original ideas for rock songwriting, Bare says the new material came to him quickly over a three- to four-month period; the character study "The Monk at the Disco" was hammered out on a short plane flight.
It helps that young Bobby, who got his start in showbiz at the age of 5 singing "Daddy, What If?" with his pop, learned his craft at the hands of one of the best: Shel Silverstein, who penned such masterpieces as "A Boy Named Sue" and "The Cover of Rolling Stone." Silverstein and Bare Sr. collaborated on several albums, most notably 1973's Bobby Bare Sings Lullabies, Legends, and Lies, and the celebrated poet, songwriter, and children's author was a regular guest in the Bare household.
"Up until the second Bare Jr. album, every song I ever wrote was critiqued by Shel Silverstein," says Bobby. (Silverstein passed away in May 1999). "He'd tell me where I was being lazy and bust my balls if I was being too abstract or indirect. That whupped me into the shape I'm in today." Bare makes it easy to compare the work of student and teacher by capping Young Criminals' with a rendition of "Painting Her Fingernails," a Silverstein tune Bare learned from his father.
Alas, in Bare Jr.'s opinion, the opportunities for outstanding songwriters in the Music City have all but vanished since the heyday of his father and Silverstein. "If Kris Kristofferson moved to Nashville right now, he wouldn't get any cuts," he laments. "And that makes me want to vomit. But at the same time, I don't want to hear Faith Hill singing a Kristofferson song. I don't want those people embracing [that]."
Even if he isn't thrilled with the music currently coming out of his hometown, there are other artists to get excited about: Beck, the Flaming Lips, System of a Down. Best of all, Bare hears Morrissey is almost ready to break his five-year recording silence. "You know, couple months ago, he did two nights on [The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn]. And he sat on that couch and said he was happy."
"Happy," he repeats, a note of awe audible in his voice. "That just blew me away."