To be honest, Nashville is a very strange town. It may be the darling of media far and wide, home to soaring property values and rambling hipsters, but to take a quiet moment and reflect, one must come to the distinctive conclusion — this town is very strange.
They say “Keep Austin Weird” in Texas, but here the layers of strange require no tending. An environment in which an aggressive neighbor who yells at your dog might have written a No. 1 hit in 1958 doesn’t exist everywhere. The other neighbor has driven Hank Williams to the liquor store.
It is this landscape that has given the world the strange and beautiful career of Bobby Bare Jr. The rock & roll son of country star Bobby Bare is a native — a card-carrying East Nashvillian. His father’s Grammy-winning hit recording of “Detroit City” in 1963 launched a monster career that gave a definitive shape to his young son’s life.
“When I was born, I lived on Broadmoor,” Bare Jr. says recently, sitting in Mitchell Deli on McGavock Pike. “Now, I only live a mile from the house I grew up in. We thought we lived in Madison when I grew up. And, then we lived in Hendersonville — I went to school there — but I came back to
“I mean, we could go and find the house out here where June Carter wrote ‘Ring of Fire,’ ” he continues. “Harlan and Jan Howard living over here. Roger Miller did demos in their studio in the garage. It goes deep. When you think about what Harlan Howard would mean to this town today. These were some of the biggest stars. Kristofferson said the house over on Broadmoor was the first star’s house he’d ever visited. But it was just a normal, little place.”
This is Nashville’s peculiar environment, and it holds steady, producing flesh-and-blood fusions of country and rock & roll, as in the barrel-chested, 49-year-old Bare. As proof, he was nominated, with his father, for a Grammy when he was 8-years-old for the Shel Silverstein-penned song, “Daddy What If.” This is the landscape from which Bare has crafted a career and become Americana’s Everyman. Today, he lives the life and hovers between stardom and street minstrel.
Bare is honest in his take, and honest with his musical approach — always personal, sometimes rollicking and roots-inflected, and at other times, atmospheric and psychedelic.
“I always say it’s Southern, and I rock,” he says. “But it’s not Southern rock. It’s Americana. As long as Neil Young is in Americana, I’m in! But, I don’t want to hear people sing political songs. Even Neil Young acknowledges that you can’t save the world with a song. I’m a strong believer in that. I don’t want to go to the dentist and hear him about to drill and see a picture of George W. on the wall. Why, just because I’m a musician, should someone listen to me? Or that someone gives a shit. It’s really arrogant.”
First signed by Immortal Records in the 1990s with the rocking outfit Bare Jr., he has navigated his way through nine albums, the last five on the Bloodshot label, including the soundtrack from the documentary Don’t Follow Me I’m Lost, which was released at the end of July. The film, directed by William Miller, is a revealing trip into the existence of Bare, who packs his world into a van and a trailer and tours the country, an
“He [Miller] came up to me at the City Winery in New York and said he’d like to do a documentary with me,” Bare recalls, laughing. “I said sure. I said it’s 90 percent truck driver, nothing that exciting and glamorous. He ended up with a crew of four in two SUVs following our van and trailer around the country.”
Early on, Bare did his best to avoid the musician’s life, delaying the inevitable. His parents didn’t want him to do it either, and he was hooked on BMX racing.
“I didn’t even play guitar until I was 24 or so,” he said. “I was racing bicycles, BMX — I was building racing bikes. I wanted to be in or around it, somehow. But when I decided I was going to start playing my songs out, I had to put my attention into it.”
His voice rises with an open, ironic expressiveness. He was getting by then, working on bicycles at Cumberland Transit, as well as working house lights at different clubs and with a few bands.
“Really, I didn’t play a song of mine out until I was over 30,” he says. “I was mostly a light guy for The Cactus Brothers, and Mel and the Party Hats. I was a house guy at 328 Performance Hall and Exit/In running lights. I ran lights for the Foo Fighters’ first two shows, and for the Smashing Pumpkins when they first came to Nashville.”
Bare had already seen the road. “I grew up on the road with my dad since the mid-’70s,” he says. “I was in high school and college selling T-shirts on the road. I was on the road at every honky tonk in America during the Urban Cowboy boom. Now, that was a Big Boom. I mean Gilley’s, Billy Bob’s — just being in Austin selling T-shirts.”
Later, he moved to Vail, Colo., to work on a ski lift. It’s the sort of thing Nashvillians do when they try to escape the seventh layer of strange.
“While I was in Vail, I was sending some songs to Shel Silverstein, and he was critiquing them,” Bare recalls. “He was critical. He didn’t want to hear any music. He just wanted me to send lyrics. The hard part. Music is the fun part.”
Of course, not everyone could call Silverstein and ask for critique, but it all makes sense for a guy who was raised in what he thought was weird old Madison. Things can happen. And they did.
“When I started actually writing songs, I got a publishing deal, and a record deal soon after,” Bare says. “Not because I was a badass. I had a song that sounded like a hit, and I went to college with some of these guys.”
Now, almost 20 years later, Bare survives. He even thrives.
“I get to play for a living!” he says. “There’s nothing to complain about. People are eager to complain because the label didn’t make them a star. I’m not going to complain about the industry, really. I’ve been around and seen them lose money, too — a lot of it in a day. A tour bus might be $1,200 a day.
“I’m in awe that I don’t have to work at Cumberland Transit and fix flat tires,” he adds with a laugh.
Bare understands the scene and surveys it with an insider’s eye. He is the man in the documentary, doing his thing.
“You have to interact,” he says. “You have to have access. You can’t just be lazy — you have to hustle, and you have to listen to them. It’s a hustle. I have friends who aren’t hustlers. They can’t go out and do house parties. They’re too fragile or whatever. It’s not for everybody — it ain’t for sissies, that’s for sure.
“Some people are just way too cool to open up,” he continues. “Way too cool for that. I grew up with great performers who had no problem hanging out at the T-shirt table and hugging everybody.”
And when he’s on stage, or sitting in someone’s living room, Bare gives himself over. “When I go see younger or newer singer-songwriters, and, whenever they aren’t good or don’t let you see them, it’s like a stripper that won’t let you see the ugly parts,” he says. “If I don’t get up there and let you see my darkest, scariest, creepiest stuff, then I’m just another pretty boy up there
“And it’s harder for women. It’s harder for women to be a Lucinda Williams and just get out there and let it fly — you have to let the scary parts show.”
Every day, Bare is thankful for his place in the Nashville landscape. He, like others, marvels at the changes in East Nashville with the ongoing influx of new blood, and he embraces it. For him, the scene is knowable.
“It’s awesome — it’s great the way things have blown up here in East Nashville,” he says. “There’s a lot of badass musicians here. I love it. But you know, the players that were the best here 10 years ago are still the best. It’s not like everyone that was just killing it over the last 10 years suddenly got displaced. They got hired by Jack White!
“Still, no one is better than Kenny Vaughn, or Warner Hodges, John Jackson.”
Bare understands his neighbor and his neighborhood, and he has no problem with working hard and fitting into his space in
“At the same time, if anybody wants me to sell out, I’m ready,” he says. “I joke about what selling out means — who do we know that sold out? They’re not going to ask me to be the next Dierks Bentley.”