BARE, WAYLON, WILLIE, (AND)WINNERS

Lullabys, legends, and lies from the days of the Outlaws

  • In the fall of 1972 Bobby Bare was searching for something different and rare in the single-focused country music world of Nashville — a concept album.
          “I had approached every songwriter in town about writing an album that had a thread going through it that meant something,” Bare recalls. “All of the songwriters were still thinking in terms of singles. They all had a song or two songs they thought could be hits, but nobody had an album, and nobody was willing to sit down and write one.”

    Although concept albums were a fixture of the rock world by 1972, country music was still hanging on to the view of albums as secondary product — a way to repackage a few hit singles and clear out the tape vault of scraps. There had been notable exceptions of course, mostly collections of songs built around a central theme like Marty Robbins’ hit album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs or Johnny Cash’s Ride This Train, but the idea of a focused, concept album that was more than the sum of its parts was still viewed as a risky indulgence. Then Bare ran into songwriter, cartoonist, and humorist Shel Silverstein while attending a party at songwriter Harlan Howard’s house during the Country Music Association’s annual convention.
          “I told Shel what my dilemma was, and he said, ‘Let me think about that,’ ” Bare says. “On Monday morning he called from Chicago and said, ‘I got you an album. It’s called Lullabys, Legends and Lies.’ I asked when I could hear it, and he said how about this afternoon? So, he hopped on a plane and flew back down to Nashville. He got to my office, and he started singing those songs. They were so great. The one that really got my attention was ‘The Winner.’ It just kept going on and on and I was down in the floor laughing. I finally had to make him stop, and I said let me go in the studio and take a crack at it.”
          The resulting album, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies, broke every established rule of country music in the early 1970s: Bare produced the record himself (in partnership with fellow non-producer Bill Rice), Bare mostly eschewed established session players to record with musicians of his own choosing, it was a double-LP — an almost unheard of extravagance in country music, it was a collection of oddball songs by a solitary writer with no obvious choice for a single, and many of the songs broke the unwritten rule of country radio play — keep it under three minutes (with one offender clocking in at a gargantuan 8 minutes and 14 seconds). The final flouting of norms came with the overdubbing of audience applause, turning a studio album into a simulated live set at a time when the common wisdom viewed country music live albums as D.O.A., unless your name was Johnny Cash.
          Despite the long list of offenses, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies spent 30 weeks on the Billboard country album chart, topping out at No. 5. It also produced three hit singles: the No. 2 hit “Daddy What If,” a duet with Bare’s 6-year-old son Bobby Bare, Jr.; the No. 1 smash “Marie Laveau;” and the sprawling, comic epic, “The Winner,” that first cinched the deal with Bare.
          Beyond the album’s success and what it meant for Bare’s career personally, it was also the inflection point in a country music revolution that had been quietly simmering in Nashville’s beer joints, recording studios, and publishing offices for several years. Revolutionaries were also gathering in Austin, Texas where a new country music scene with a distinctly countercultural flavor sprang up, nurtured by Nashville refugee and repatriated Texan Willie Nelson. The combined forces of these two musical liberation fronts would wrest creative control from record companies and usher in a brief era of unbridled creativity in country music. Artists like Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser, Kris Kristofferson, and more, created exciting, uncompromised music, expanding country music’s fan base and revitalizing the music industry.

    The story of this musical revolution is chronicled in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s new exhibition, Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, opening on May 25 for a nearly three year run. In collaboration with Austin-based filmmaker and exhibit co-curator Eric Geadelmann, the comprehensive exhibit includes interview clips, performance footage, and never-before-seen artifacts, recounting how Nashville and Austin-based musicians who were viewed as oddballs and outlaws by the music establishment shook the status quo of Music Row.
          The roots of the revolution took hold in the mid-60s as a new breed of singers, songwriters, and musicians descended upon Nashville, slowly altering the creative landscape. Songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, and Mickey Newbury crafted songs on a country foundation, exploring new horizons of lyrical and emotional complexity. At the same time, the success of Bob Dylan’s 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde,” recorded in Nashville, drew many rock and folk musicians to Nashville in search of the same Music City mojo. The influx of counter-culture musicians brought new ideas and creativity into Nashville as transplanted hippie musicians discovered the beauty of country music soul, and Nashville musicians tuned in and turned on to the counter culture.
          Bobby Bare was one of the first established Nashville country stars to fully embrace the new generation of progressive songwriters and musicians. He welcomed Texas-transplant and former rocker Waylon Jennings to town in 1965 and recorded the Jennings composition “Just to Satisfy You” at a time when the struggling singer and songwriter desperately needed a break in Nashville. Bare also championed the complex, introspective songs of Kris Kristofferson and the poetic narrative mini-dramas of Tom T. Hall.
          In 1970, Bare moved to Mercury Records after eight successful years at RCA. While his records were produced by Mercury staff producer Jerry Kennedy, Bare enjoyed a much greater degree of artistic freedom than he experienced at RCA, and he racked up an impressive run of hits with songs by Hall, Kristofferson, and Silverstein.
          That same year, Bare opened an office at 1819 Broadway for his music publishing company, Return Music. It quickly became a hang-out for songwriters and musicians who were personas non-grata in the more conservative offices on Music Row. Bare tapped many of these young talents for new songs, such as roughand- tumble Texan, Billy Joe Shaver.
          “Billy Joe was just wandering around town,” Bare says. “He came to my office one day. I was looking for a new writer, but Billy Joe was so different and strange. He kind of spooked me at first. Then I heard him play a few songs and I thought, ‘This guy’s got it.’ His songs were not like everybody else’s, and I signed him up as a writer.”
          That same year, the Glaser Brothers — Tompall, Chuck, and Jim — opened a recording studio in a two-story Spanish style house at 916 19th Ave. S., just three blocks away from Bare’s office. Although the studio was officially christened Glaser Sound Studio, it became known as “Hillbilly Central.” Over the next two years, Return Music and Hillbilly Central became ground zero for the group of songwriters and musicians that went back and forth between the two locales. A group that Hillbilly Central secretary Hazel Smith eventually dubbed “The Outlaws.”
          The rotating roster of rogue hillbillies included Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford, Kinky Friedman, Shel Silverstein, Jimmy Buffet, Vince Matthews, Roger Murrah and many others. It was a scene where like-minded creative types could talk, joke, drink, and drug, with frequent trips to the Burger Boy drive-in across the street from Return Music for greasy food and marathon gambling sessions on the quasi-legal flipperless pinball games occupying the back room of the greasy spoon. More importantly, it was a place where ground-breaking songs were conceived, and great music was made.
          “Everyone knew we were doing something different,” Bare says. “Everybody was hangin’ out, making music, and playing pinball. I wound up with three pinball machines in my office. You were surrounded by smart, bright people. They might not be educated, but they were sharp, and aware of everything around them. And you loved being around people like that.”
          As the wife of Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter was a frequent visitor to Hillbilly Central. And as a singer and songwriter, she was just as enchanted by the creativity and good times.
          “There was a cloistered feeling at Hillbilly Central,” Colter says. “It was hide-out place, a kind of a solace from the rest of the town. On the first floor there was one little office that (ex-radio DJ and unofficial scene “guru”) Captain Midnight lived in. He was a walking encyclopedia of the business. Hazel Smith had an office, and Marie Fielder, who later married John Hartford, was the go-to front woman. The studio was on the second floor and Tompall and Waylon would hang out there for hours. They were like brothers. They would insult each other and laugh and carry on. You’d be there in the middle of the night and Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, Bobby Bare, or Tony Joe White might be there. You’d never knew who’d you’d run into. They were like kids having fun, and Waylon’s mind was always on music.”
          By 1970, Waylon’s thoughts about his music were more and more in opposition to standard Nashville operating procedure. The Nashville Sound had developed in the 1950s as a looser alternative to the tightly-controlled major studio system in New York. In Nashville, producers and seasoned session men often had more say on the sound of a record than the artist, and the system was geared toward efficiently producing hits in short, three-hour sessions. As the 1960s progressed, rock artists gained greater freedom and autonomy in studios, often leading to marathon recording sessions allowing for greater experimentation. Jennings didn’t view himself as a rebel, he simply wanted to select his own material and record with the musicians he wanted in a studio of his own choosing. Rock artists that came to Nashville were granted this freedom, so why not country artists?
          Willie Nelson was asking that same question. After arriving in Nashville in 1960, he built a reputation as a gifted and prolific songwriter, mixing honky-tonk and Western swing with pop sophistication. Signing with RCA in 1964, the record company promoted Nelson as a hillbilly Sinatra, but Nelson’s musical idiosyncrasies ran deep. He might record an LP of classic honky-tonk songs and then write a complex, philosophical concept album on the meaning of life. After eight years of feuding with RCA and failing to produce a major hit, he left Nashville for Austin, Texas where he began building a new following with the local country-fried counterculture, but his recording career was in limbo as RCA refused to release him from his contract.
          In the meantime, Bobby Bare’s contract with Mercury ran out in the summer of 1972. When Chet Atkins approached him about returning to the label, Bare found RCA to be far more agreeable than they were with Jennings or Nelson.
          “I told Chet you got too many producers,” Bare says. “Chet said, ‘Why don’t you produce your own records? I don’t think you’d go crazy in the studio.’ Chet knew me and knew what I was capable of, so I said, ‘Great, I’ll do it.’ ”
          It was an example of Music Row’s two guiding principles in action — money and the “Old Boy” network. Bare had a proven track record as a hitmaker and a publishing company that was unearthing hit songs from soil Music Row wouldn’t touch. In addition, Atkins personally endorsed Bare’s ability to stay on budget and “behave.” The executives at RCA were hesitant to grant rock star freedoms to country artists, simply because they viewed country incapable of producing profits that justified the risk, but Atkins’ personal guarantee made all the difference — it was a surety he wouldn’t grant for Jennings and Nelson.
          Jennings found the solution to his dilemma with Neil Reshen, a major league New York talent agent and attorney whose clients included Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and the Velvet Underground. In November 1972, he negotiated a new contract with RCA for Jennings guaranteeing artistic freedom in the studio. Hot on the heels of that deal, Reshen negotiated Willie Nelson’s release from his RCA contract and secured Nelson a new deal with the non-Nashville based Atlantic Records, promising him the same artistic freedom.
          Although Bare had a new level of freedom in the studio, he knew it would last only as long as he delivered hits and kept RCA in the dark about what he had in mind. With Shel Silverstein’s proposed concept album in mind, he devised a plan.
          “One of the first things I did was Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Ride Me Down Easy,’ and it was a big hit,” Bare says. When it was going up the charts, I immediately started on the Shel Silverstein project. RCA didn’t even know I was doing it. I cut it really fast. Later, (RCA chief) Jerry Bradley told me if he’d known what I was doing he would have stopped it because it was way too left field.”
          In a case that could only be explained by a cosmic convergence of forces, at the same time Bare was rapidly recording Lullabys, Legends and Lies in RCA Studio B, Waylon Jennings was cutting Honky Tonk Heroes — a freewheeling rock-infused collection of Billy Joe Shaver compositions — next door at RCA Studio A, and Willie Nelson was at Atlantic Studios in New York City laying down tracks for his collection of downhome Texas country funk and swing, Shotgun Willie. Those three albums became the cornerstones of Outlaw country, but recording an unconventional album was one thing. Getting a conservative label like RCA to release it was another.
          “The only thing that saved it was after I’d mixed it, I ran into Vito Blando in Nashville,” Bare says. “He was the RCA promotion guy out of Atlanta. I gave him a copy and told him to take it home, listen to it, and let me know what he thought. When he heard me and Bare Jr. singing ‘Daddy What if?’ he just flipped out. The next day he took it over to WSB in Atlanta. At the time they were the biggest country radio station in the South. They played ‘Daddy What If?’ and the phones lit up and the whole world started swirling. RCA rushed it out as a single and everybody was going crazy. RCA was stuck. They had to put out the album.”
          Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies proved to be much bigger than one hit single. Across the four sides of the album, Bare’s loose, offhand performances of Silverstein’s clever, sentimental, and slyly whimsical tall tales, legends, and slightly off-color jokes created a warm and welcoming musical experience. After more than four decades it’s one of the most irresistibly charming country albums ever produced, one that defies every common sense commercial principle of the time while entrancing the most cynical listener. The ultimate joke, and perhaps the purest expression of the Outlaw spirit, is that such an honest and focused artistic vision actually began with a simple deception.
          “What I didn’t know until later was that when Shel had gone back to Chicago, he wrote one song, ‘Lullabys, Legends and Lies,’” Bare says. “Then he reached down in his sack and pulled out songs he had already written that fit those categories.”
          The artistic and financial success of Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies not only revitalized Bare’s career but proved it was possible for country artists to follow their muse and produce hits. Although Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes and Nelson’s Shotgun Willie were equally significant in artistic terms, they both fell short on sales at the time. But all three artists had their eye on the long game, and in just a few years they would push country music to new heights with multi-million sellers.
          “I knew it was time,” Bare says. “It was time to do albums that made sense (as a whole). The record companies back then had no idea where the audience was. They had no idea that Willie was down there in Texas building up this huge following. The same with Waylon, he’d been touring around the country building up a huge following. Willie and Waylon both knew better than anybody what that audience wanted to hear, and they gave it to them in spite of the record companies.”
          As with all special moments in history, the rowdy times and creative juices flowing between Bare’s office, Hillbilly Central, and late-night rounds of pinball at the Burger Boy eventually faded. Ironically the album that fully commemorated the breakthrough of the Outlaw movement — the 1976 hit compilation Wanted! The Outlaws — was also the beginning of the end. The brief period of “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” in Nashville’s studios came to an end once the Million-Selling-Units genie escaped from its bottle. Rather than taking a chance on an oddball singer/songwriter who might get lucky and sell 200,000 units, the major labels refocused on marketing designed to propel manufactured outlaws and urban cowboys into millions in sales.
          As with its musical near-contemporary, punk rock, the Outlaws rebellion left behind a creative roadmap — a legacy inspiring subsequent generations. In the decades that followed, new traditionalists, alt-country rockers, and Americana troubadours each found their own way to rebel against the established order and revitalize country music, often by following the tracks laid down by the Outlaws.
          “It was a real thrill,” Jessi Colter says. “I wouldn’t trade my memories of it for anything. It was the beginning of a revolution that really helped country music and brought the changes it needed at the time. There was no boredom in those days.”