Bobby Bare - Biography
by Charles Reece
In an easy-going baritone voice, Bobby Bare’s delivery recalls your favorite uncle showing up for the holidays, regaling the whole family with tales of his travels. Even when singing the songs of others, Bare sounds as if he were telling the stories off the cuff. Thus, his recordings are best when he was playing live to an audience (cf., Down & Dirty, 1979) or with a group of friends, as on “Greasy Grit Gravy” (1978) — Shel Silverstein’s tribute to a Southern cuisine staple, which featured Bare sharing singing chores with Silverstein, Willie Nelson and others.
Like many country artists of his era, Robert Joseph Bare did not have it easy growing up. Born on April 7, 1935 in Ironton, Ohio, Bare lost his mother when he was 5 and his father could not earn enough money to keep the family together. Throughout his teen years, he worked an assortment of jobs to support himself, including the hard labor of farms and factories. Bare aspired to more, building his first guitar and playing with a local band in Springfield, Ohio. He left for Los Angeles in the late 1950's to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional musician.
After a failed series of recordings at Capitol Records (backed by Buck Owens among others), Bare returned to Ohio in 1958, which is where his recording career ironically took off. After helping his friend, Bill Parsons, record a demo, Bare asked to use the remaining 20 minutes of studio time to record one of his own songs, “The All American Boy,” based on his having just received a draft notice. It was the first of many talking country songs for Bare, which play to his strengths as a natural storyteller. The Ohio label, Fraternity Records, liked what they heard and purchased the song and its publishing rights for $50, releasing it as a single under the name Bill Parsons. The song went on to become the second biggest hit of December, 1959 in the US (#2 on the pop chart) and a #22 hit in the UK. Bare did not have much time to capitalize on his success when, as stated in the song, he gave up his guitar for the call of Uncle Sam.
Returning home from the army at the beginning of the 1960's, Bare roomed with Willie Nelson and enjoyed a moderately successful stint as a pop/rock artist, touring with the likes of Bobby Darin and Roy Orbison. A few of Bare’s songs can be heard in the Chubby Checker-featured musical, Teenage Millionaire (1961). He returned to country music firmament when Chet Atkins signed him to RCA in 1962. Bare’s diverse interests in the popular music of the day meshed well with Atkins’ production style that aimed at placing country artists on the pop charts.
Bare’s first single for RCA, “Shame On Me,” was one of the first Nashville recordings to feature horns and — as with many of his recordings from this period — placed a polished chorus behind the lead vocals. The strategy was effective; the single made it to #18 and #23 on the country and pop charts, respectively (1962). Indeed, Bare found a good deal of success with the Nashville Sound in the first half of the 1960s'. Some of his most memorable hits from this period are his versions of Mel Tillis and Danny Dill’s “Detroit City” (for which he won his only Grammy; #6 country single, #16 pop single, 1963), the traditional folk song, “500 Miles From Home” (top 10 on both the country and pop charts, 1963) and Jack Clement’s classic “Miller Cave” (#4 country, #33 pop, 1964).
With his status as a country star ratified by the charts, Bare became more adventurous in his choice of material for the second half of the 1960's. He scored a #5 hit with his version of Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard’s “Streets of Baltimore” — a song that would become a bona fide country rock classic when covered by Gram Parsons in 1972 and later by the Flying Burrito Brothers. Bare was one of the first Nashville artists to express an admiration for the music of Bob Dylan, covering his “It Ain’t Me Babe” on the 1966 album, Talk Me Some Sense (RCA). Performing a thematically connected group of songs mostly written by Jack Clement, he revived the idea of a country concept album with A Bird Named Yesterday (1967 RCA), a nostalgic monody to modernity’s effects on a small town. Due to his popularity in the U.K., he recorded an album (The English Country Side, 1967 RCA) with an English band, The Hillsiders, which spawned one hit, “Find Out What’s Happening” (#15, 1968).
An ardent supporter of the nontraditional songwriters revolving around Nashville at the time, Bare had a decent sized hit with Waylon Jennings and Don Bowman’s “Just To Satisfy You” (#31, 1965), a string of hits with Tom T. Hall’s songs — including “(Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn” (#4, 1969) and “God Bless America Again” (#3, 1970) — and, after signing with Mercury, two hits in 1971 with the songs of Kris Kristofferson — “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” (#8) and “Come Sundown” (#7). Additionally, in his capacity as head of the publishing company, Return Music, from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, Bare helped to open the door to less traditional and more progressive country by signing singer-songwriters like Billy Joe Shaver, whose song, “Ride Me Down Easy,” would provide him with a hit when he covered it in 1973 (#11).
After 2 years at Mercury, Bare signed with United Artists to record only 1 album, This is Bare Country, which the company chose not to release until 1976, following the successful albums he made after resigning with RCA in 1973. His second stint at RCA is what most fans consider his classic years. It was there that Bare began his close collaboration with the songwriter Shel Silverstein for the album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies (1973 RCA). As producer, Bare recorded it with a live studio audience, who can be heard singing along. It was another concept album, with 2 long-players’ worth of songs from Silverstein, featuring his skewed take on tall tales (e.g., “Paul), folksy superstitions (e.g., “Brian Hennessey”) and typical themes from Americana (e.g., “The Winner”). Bare’s 2 biggest hits of his career came from the album, “Marie Laveau” (#1) and “Daddy What If” (#2, both in 1974), the latter of which featured a duet with his son and future rock musician, Bobby Bare, Jr.. While at RCA, Bare released a successful followup album of all Silverstein songs, Bobby Bare and the Family Singin’ in the Kitchen (1975), Hard Time Hungrys (1975) and his final album for the label, Me and McDill (1977).
With a large publicity campaign from his new manager, rock promoter Bill Graham, his first release for Columbia Records, Bare (1978), found a larger audience among college students and Canadians, if not traditional country fans. Although he was never to regain the popularity he experienced in the first half of the 1970's, Bare continued to receive critical praise and managed to chart with a few singles here and there, including the Silverstein-penned songs, “Numbers” (#11) and “Tequila Sheila” (co-written with Mac Davis; #31; both in 1980), from the live album, Down & Dirty (1979). He continued his collaboration with Silverstein on a studio-recorded sequel, Drunk & Crazy, in 1981. His last few records for Columbia showed that his appreciation for a diverse range of songwriters was as strong as ever. On As Is (1981), he recorded songs from Townes Van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”), J.J. Cale (“Call Me The Breeze”) and Guy Clark (“Desperados Waiting For A Train”). Bare retired after his last album for the label, Drinkin’ from the Bottle, Singin’ from the Heart (1983), another collection of mostly Silverstein-penned songs.
From 1983 to 1988, Bare was the host for The Nashville Network’s Bobby Bare and Friends, where he would interview songwriters and have them perform their work. With Silverstein providing the tunes, he formed a country supergroup consisting of himself, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed, releasing their eponymous album, Old Dogs, in 1998. Due to the urging of his son, Bare, Jr., Bare recorded one last solo album in 2005, The Moon Was Blue (Dualtone Records), that could be described as alternative country, due to some modern, electronic flourishes. Otherwise, Bare spends his time fishing with his old friends, Jerry Reed and Little Jimmy Dickens. He currently resides with his wife, Jeannie, on a ranch near Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with all 3 of his children living close by. He continues to occasionally play live, usually at casinos or county fairs.
(text written by Charles Reece)