When veteran country singer Bobby Bare is judged by the company he’s kept and songs he’s cut, he comes out looking like a legend. He got Waylon Jennings signed. He cut songs by an unknown Kris Kristofferson. And he cruised through sea changes in country music with his good taste intact. On Darker Than Light, his first album in years, he still sounds like his perceptive, laid-back self.
Bare got into the country music business half a century ago. So it’s not all that surprising that a few of his memories are fuzzy. He’s crystal clear, however, on how he found “Detroit City,” a country-folk ballad that captured the homesickness felt by a generation of displaced southerners and helped make him a star in the early ‘60s.
“Every great song I ever heard I remember where I was,” he says, “the exact spot and the time of day. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood when I heard Billy Grammar’s [recording of “Detroit City”] on the radio and it blew me away. I stopped, stopped the car right in the middle of the Hollywood traffic, and listened to that song. And as soon as I got to Nashville, I recorded it.”
Bare is a songwriter himself, but he’s better known for his ear for quality material, and his open mind. He was one of the first country acts to dip into the catalog of a countercultural folkie named Bob Dylan. And when idiosyncratic, untested writers like Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver and Tom T. Hall started showing up in Nashville, Bare was quick to embrace them.
“Most all great songwriters are very, very bright,” he offers. “They are the sharpest people I know, and they have to be to be that aware of what’s going on around them. They’re the ones that I hung out with. And most of the great songwriters are fearless. They’ll put their heart on the line. Billy Joe Shaver is one of ‘em. …He’s not trying to write something like something, so it’ll be a hit and he’ll get rich.”
An Easygoing Outlaw
Ultimately, though, Bare didn’t have to choose between substance and success. In the countrypolitan era, he and producer Chet Atkins eased into the sweet spot between folk grit and pop polish.
“I was heavy into 12-string guitars then,” recalls Bare. “We combined the 12-string guitars along with his countrypolitan Nashville Sound, which was strings and stuff. But I just had all that doing pads. Good thing I did, because with Chet’s ability to cut the sweet sounds of that time, the combination of that and my, ah, raggedness, we came out with well-balanced record[s] that [were] accepted in the Billboard top 100 as well as the country music charts.”
During the ‘70s Outlaw craze, long hair and rebellious postures attracted a lot of attention. Bare never sweated his image, but he did help usher in the independent spirit of that moment by self-producing an album of gonzo Shel Silverstein songs, Lullabies, Legends and Lies, behind his label’s back.
“I knew they were going to be unhappy with it,” he chuckles, “but I did it. And it was so enjoyable, with Shel Silverstein in the studio yelling, ‘More juice!’ …And then [the first song released from the album], “Daddy What If,” was a big hit so fast, so quickly that everybody got happy real fast and I had no more problems with them.”
Not that easygoing Bare ever really had problems with anybody. In fact, rather than go up against country’s hot young things in the 1980s, he stopped recording and devoted his attention to hosting the TNN television show Bobby Bare and Friends, those friends being out-there songwriter pals-turned-interviewees. Later on, he adopted a not-too-strenuous schedule of touring and fishing. But releasing little new music over the past three decades—with the exception of a 2005 album produced by his son—lowered his profile considerably.
A Song Obsession
This year, Plowboy Records—a newly launched indie that prioritizes bringing new attention to forgotten yet deserving music-makers like Eddy Arnold, grandfather of label founder Shannon Pollard—invited Bare to pick up where he left off. So he returned to the scene of his early hits, RCA Studio B, this time backed by a good chunk of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.
The resulting album, Darker Than Light, showcases Bare’s lifelong song obsession. There’s material from U2 and alternative country icon Alejandro Escovedo alongside originals, sturdy folk tunes, a Dylan obscurity and a musical adaptation of a poem Silverstein penned for Playboy.
Bare explains, “It’s such a, well, typical Shel Silverstein, and I didn’t change any words that he wrote. One of the F words is in there. Because I knew that Shel didn’t like anybody changing his words. And I just added melody to it that I knew he would like.”[
The FCC probably wouldn’t care for those song lyrics, but that’s hardly the album’s darkest selection. “Tom Dooley” is one of three murder ballads Bare included, and his wry well-wishing to Dooley at the end of the track shows how much he relishes singing it, and how well his deliciously skewed sense of humor has held up.
“His day is ruint forever,” he says with a laugh. “He’s hanging.”
“Boll Weevil” is another old folk song Bare sank his teeth into on Darker Than Light, delivering his lines with a knowing wink over a loping acoustic groove.
“Tex Ritter taught me that song back in the—gee, it must have been the late ‘50s,” he recollects. “I love that song. I heard it when I was a kid, and I loved it then.”
Clearly, after all this time, Bare still loved it enough to dust it off and put it on his album, and still enjoyed the process of immersing himself in studio storytelling enough to make a new album period.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to do this album for at least thirty years,” he clarifies. “But nobody’s really interested, you know, because I’m getting old and these are old songs. So when I got the opportunity to do it, I jumped at it.”
Old doesn’t necessarily mean played-out. The cover of Bare’s new album is sure to catch some eyes, with its southern-gothic-looking photo of a shack consumed by flames. But it’s the music inside that proves good taste doesn’t go bad.