If Bobby Bare Jr. is a chip off the old block, somebody forgot to sand him down.
At 32, the son of one of country music's smoothest, most laid-back song stylists is making a late-blooming but impressive debut with "Boo-tay," an album of raucous, humorous yet insightful songs about what happens when hopelessly dysfunctional people fall in love.
Juicing up a countryish twang with lots of brawny, British-influenced garage-band rock 'n' roll voltage, Bare Jr., as he bills himself and his band (omitting "Bobby"), has a lot in common with Steve Earle at his most hell-bent.
Howling in a boozy drawl as the drums pound ahead, the guitars bray and even the dulcimer player is plugged in and jacked up to 11, Bare Jr. hails from a different musical universe than his father's string of easygoing, sometimes funny, sometimes rueful folk- and pop-tinged country hits.
Bobby Bare Sr. was a steady presence on the country charts from the early '60s through the mid-'80s, building his reputation on such '60s-vintage nuggets as "Detroit City," "Four Strong Winds" and "The Streets of Baltimore."
Could this sonic schism be a way for a son who majored in psychology in college to give the old man a highly amplified Freudian shove?
Not in the least. In recent interviews, Bare Jr., whose first tour brings him to the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Friday as opening act for fellow Nashvilleans the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies--Thursday's tour stop at the Coach House was canceled earlier this week--and Bare Sr., who plays Nov. 22 at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, spoke of a close relationship in which they catch each other's shows, speak regularly on the phone and harmonize on each other's records.
"The easy thing [for Bare Jr.] to do would be to try to do country. He took the hard way, and I'm glad he's doing his own thing," Bare Sr., 63, said from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. "I see him [play] every chance I get if he comes on fairly early. It's kind of difficult for me to get it together at midnight and head downtown."
There could be a song idea in that for Bare Sr.: His current recording project is Old Dogs, an alliance with his fellow country music sexagenarians Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed. Old Dogs recently released a pair of albums musing humorously on the indignities of aging, with all songs written by that famous wag Shel Silverstein.
Bare Jr. sings backup on "Me and Jimmie Rodgers," the one poignant lament on two volumes otherwise given to poking fun at the aging process.
Bare Sr. returns the favor on "Love-less," a representatively loud and laughing-to-keep-from-crying take on dashed romance from "Boo-tay" in which Bare Jr. howls, "The calamity of you and me / Is absolute absurdity."
Short Childhood Career
This intergenerational meeting of voices marks a reunion for the Bares after 25 years. In 1973, "Daddy What If . . ." reached No. 2 on the Billboard country singles chart, the best showing of Bare Sr.'s career. The song was a cutely sentimental duet recorded in 1971 with a 5-year-old Bobby Jr. Its success prompted an album follow-up called "Singin' in the Kitchen," featuring the whole Bare family.
Bare Jr., speaking from a tour stop in Portland, said his father made sure not to stage-manage his children into singing careers; after a summer of family touring after the release of "Singin' in the Kitchen," the family-band concept had run its course. (Bare Sr.'s younger son, Shannon, 29, is helping coordinate the Old Dogs project; older sister Cari died at age 14, Bare Jr. said, of complications after the birth of a daughter, who was subsequently raised in the Bare household; mother Jeannie runs two Nashville teddy bear shops called the Bobby Bare Trap.)
"I couldn't wait to get on stage," Bare Jr. recalled of his days as a child performer. "Every kid wants to be like their daddy, and that's what my daddy did. But they took us out of the entertainment industry when we were kids because they didn't want us to be screwed-up, over-the-hill-at-14 types of kids."
Bare Sr. said he decided to end young Bobby's child-singer career at the age of 7.
"We did 'Hee Haw,' and I had the kids on to do the witch scream on 'Marie Laveaux' [a Bare hit about the legendary New Orleans voodoo queen]. They tried to hire Bobby Jr. I said no. I wanted them just to be kids. I didn't want them to get all that unreal attention."
Instead of spending the rest of his childhood learning to ham it up, Bobby Jr. learned what he views as a more important musical lesson: knowing the value of good songwriting.
"In the eyes of my family, there's no greater occupation than being a songwriter," he said. "My parents' favorite people in the world are all songwriters. That's what I wanted to be. I had a lot of great influences around me."
Among them were Silverstein, who became an adjunct member of the Bare family after writing reams of material for Bare Sr.'s records (among them "Daddy, What If . . ."). Others included the songwriters Bare Jr. got to meet during the mid-'80s while his father was hosting "Bobby Bare and Friends," a weekly cable program on the Nashville Network that showcased notable songwriters.
Still, young Bare said, songwriting didn't come naturally to him. After college, he hung around the rock 'n' roll scene in Nashville, working the lights for his buddies' bands and traveling as a roadie for the Cactus Brothers, a rockin' country band from Nashville that featured electric dulcimer.
"I wrote bad songs for a long time," he said.
When he began to deem his output "presentable," he would play it for his father and Silverstein. He didn't necessarily follow their suggestions for changes, but he valued their high standards and sympathetic input.
"My dad always said, 'Pick a song that you really love and rewrite it, and you'll end up with something completely different.' Grimey [Michael Grimes, the guitar player in Bare Jr.] knows more than any three people about music. If I can slide a song by him [without the sources showing], I know I've created something completely different."
About two years ago, Bare started approaching buddies on the Nashville scene to put together a band. Tracy Hackney, the amped-up dulcimer player, was working alongside him as a mechanic in a bicycle repair shop when the band started.
Being Bobby Bare's son might have meant something on country's Music Row in Nashville, but it had no value on the rock 'n' roll side of life.
"The guy who signed the band [to Epic/Immortal Records] doesn't own any Bobby Bare records," Bare Jr. said. "He signed Korn. Nobody my age or younger has heard of my dad. It's a good thing because nobody has any preexisting expectations. It's really rewarding for me that we're standing on our own feet."
A Bit of Fatherly Advice
Bare Sr. had no problem with his son taking a different path, but he wanted to be sure he realized what a commitment to a career in music would mean.
"I told him, 'If you seriously have a dream, don't let nobody [expletive] with it, including me and your mother. And to make it, you've got to want it more than anything in the world, and you've got to be prepared to sacrifice just about everything to pursue that.' "
Judging from Bare Jr.'s songs, those sacrifices have included any semblance of a comfortable romantic life. On "Boo-tay," he paints himself, and every other character, as a slave to unhealthy emotional responses: "When I said I loved you, you blew me off--it turned me on," he drawls in "You Blew Me Off," borrowing the half-spoken delivery of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" while his band pounds out a heavy fuzz-tone riff nicked from "Tobacco Road."
Bare Jr. caps the album with a recording from his phone answering machine: it's an outraged girlfriend, giving him the ax quite pointedly, at length, and rather eloquently.
"It's the real deal," Bare Sr. said. "I know the girl. I'm surprised she don't sue his [butt]" for using her phone message. Bare Sr. said he's proud of the openness and determination to use unvarnished experience reflected in his son's songs, and in his use of that withering phone message.
"If you're going to write songs, you've got to put your [self] on the line and let people see who you are, and he was willing to do that," Bare Sr. said. "You have to be honest and you have to be prepared to lay yourself wide open. People know the difference."
Bare Sr. knows the difference between drawing on fans' loyalty and taxing their goodwill. If the Old Dogs records become hot items through TV promotion--the whole point of the project is that country radio has no room for old dogs--and if Jennings' iffy health permits, Bare hopes the four buddies will be able to tour. Don't look for any father-and-son concert bills, though.
"It's too different," Bare Sr. said. "His fans don't have any idea who I am, and that's fine. My fans, if Bobby Jr. and that band would crank up, it would take them about halfway through the first song to all get up and leave. They're too old to like loud music nowadays."
* Bare Jr. opens for the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies on Friday at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. (310) 276-6168. Bobby Bare plays Nov. 22 at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. 6 p.m and 9 p.m. $28. (714) 549-1512.